The Divided Heart

Note- I plan to shift my blog to my substack within the next few weeks. Be sure to sign up over there if you wish to stay up to date. I’m plan to return to weekly posts for the foreseeable future while I catch up on a long list of jobs on the farm.

Now back to this week’s post…

I hesitated to write about recent events. 

Don’t worry. It isn’t anything bad. I just put a couple of goats in the freezer, as I have done many times before. A doe gave birth out of season at the end of summer, producing two unwanted buck kids. Instead of bottle feeding I let the mother to raise them to experiment with that simpler alternative. I didn’t disbud their horns or castrate since I planned to cull them before either became an issue.

Usually goats breed in late summer and kid through the winter, but now I keep my buck with the herd so it sometimes happens at random. In traditional goat keeping three kiddings every two years is supposed to be normal. The alternative is keeping the buck isolated for half the year to control matings, which puts stress on him and demands either twice as much fencing, or grazing two groups alternately through the day (which takes a lot of my time and results in poorer nutrition for all). Provided I keep the herd small enough that their nutrition is never compromised, keeping the herd together full time makes more sense (especially since I prefer a few unsynchronised births so I produce a steadier supply of milk throughout the year).

There is also debate on the pros and cons of allowing young does to get pregnant too young due to being around the buck full time. Again, many sources argue this isn’t always a problem. First time mothers usually have single kids rather than twins. If nutrition is adequate they normally size up through their first pregnancy. Culling the kid at birth and removing the demand to produce milk is also an option (as often happens in wild herbivores when predators are present). Sometimes an animal comes along with genetics that causes it to get pregnant prematurely, which I see as just another genetic flaw which can be selected against.

I have been reluctant to talk about any of this side of keeping animals. Everybody loves to ooh and aah at the photos of fluffy newborn kids. The inescapable flip-side is that goats are prolific breeders, and a healthy herd (that is constantly rebalancing with a healthy pasture) demands humans manage the population size. 

To love and know animals, in a state that allows them to experience their full potential in the absence of predation, means killing them from time to time. 

Perhaps the strangest thing about humans is our ability to hold two contradictory thoughts, or feel two irreconcilable feelings at the same time.

I love my goats. They are intelligent, adaptable, generous creatures.

But they evolved in a context of constant predation. They demand it to remain a part of a healthy ecosystem, just as grass needs grazers. 

Life demands death. Across most of the world, the predators that once provided death are gone. 

We killed them, often thousands of years ago.

Humans are still getting used to their new role as the universal predator. 

As omnivores, we don’t automatically adjust our numbers in response to changing prey populations.

Often we lean too far toward death and drive a hunted species to extinction.

Sometimes we leave species unchecked and herbivores overrun the plant life.

Our attitude toward animals needs to strike a dynamic balance that serves the ecosystem.

In symbiosis such a balance is struck between the separate parts that grow together.

When mitochondria and chloroplasts took up residence inside cells they negotiated mechanisms to balance their numbers.

These valued guests are nourished by the parent cell, and it is nourished by them in turn.

Perhaps this core distinction between one organism or two lies in the dynamic between them.

Two separate organisms have opposing motivations. The predator always wants to eat the prey, the prey always wishes to escape. Balance is created through the limitations of both desires.

In a single organism the different parts align to a single goal. 

When a cell digests surplus mitochondria they don’t long to escape.

Just as the lamb quietly offers its throat to the farmer who will continue to shelter its mother.

I hope I have succeeded in exploring this topic without raising undue discomfort.

In my immediate family, the responsibility of processing animals falls on me. Everyone around me prefers not to think about it.

That can make it a lonely experience. Hence my motivation to write about it here. 

I hope you can understand.

Eating other animals is what made us human in the first place. 

In the future, raising and eating animals will once again become an essential activity to sustain ourselves and manage this vast planet. Human hands and tools are insufficient. 

Humans and livestock make up the bulk of vertebrate biomass today.

When I look at the global ecosystem, I keep coming back to the phrase “you broke it, you bought it”. 

Humans are the last predator standing, forced by the consequences of our spectacular successes to transform ourselves into the universal symbiont.

We broke this planet. Now it is our responsibility to remake it.

4 thoughts on “The Divided Heart

  1. Nicely handled Shane.

    It’s an uncomfortable topic but one that needs addressing. Unless we return to pre-civilization population levels, the gently managed omnivorous diet is best for human health and ecological health. Modern intensive livestock production is destructive but your method is regenerative – best for us, the animals and the wider ecology.

    Stick to it.


    (Electrical engineer and smallholder in Ayrshire, UK)


  2. This raises an interesting question. Do you happen to know what the predation numbers would be for wild goats/sheep by age range? Not exactly of course, but as a general idea.

    I had been assuming that I’d let the lambs grow older and live a few years on my future farm and primarily cull the older adults, but if as you said they would naturally have a high rate of predation at a younger age then my idea likely wouldn’t make the most sense ecologically. I’d like to replicate what would happen in nature so if most young get culled, along with the elderly ones, with a core population of mid range animals then that’s what I’ll do.


    1. Hi Bruce. You are most welcome to go for a free subscription (usually the right most option when signing up). I don’t plan to restrict any content for free subscribers. It just provides an option for people who want to show their support. Substack is just a convenient way to reach my old audience and find a few new readers too.


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