Looking into the Lives of Livestock

Now back in the UK and finally with reliable access to the Internet I feel I’m in a position to tell you a little about how the research side of things went while we were in Kumik. As you probably already know my personal interest is in animal husbandry in Zanskar which I expected to be pretty different to what I’m used to in Britain. As a vet student I’ve spent many weeks traipsing around farms playing with all sorts of animals and the first thing I noticed was that modern farming is nothing like the fairy-tale fields of our imagination. I think most people subconsciously still build their images of farmers on what historical dramas tell them farms are like but in our world of mass production of food outdated farming systems rapidly go extinct. Not to say that all farming is cruel or factory based but the Meatrix isn’t as far off as we’d all like to believe (check it out if you’ve not seen it before http://www.themeatrix.com/ ). In contrast I expected to find the subsistence farming systems of Zanskar to fit better my ideas of fairy-tale farming. In brief agriculture in Zanskar is much more old-fashioned but it’s also very different to systems from pre-agricultural revolution Britain. In fact lots of what I leaned about animal husbandry in Kumik was different, new and exciting. The way I ended up learning what I did was pretty exciting too when you compare it to our usual “just ask Google” method of day to day “research”.

The adventure started from day one in the village as we were introduced to the scene by Rigzin, our host who was forever absent from his home, who is a local agricultural officer for the government. It immediately became apparent that everyone in the village is involved in looking after their animals. Unlike some of our city inhabitants who can’t tell a goat from a sheep (tail up it’s a goat, tail down it’s a sheep) everyone in Kumik clearly had a close relationship with their animals. This was evident in the twice-daily migration of the mixed herd of sheep and goats as the came and went from the pasture. Hundreds of animals would flood into the village from the road bringing with them noise and being a mild nuisance as they marched down paths, over walls and into fields. Actually this wasn’t all as disruptive as you’d think for each group knew exactly to which household they belonged and so rarely failed to proceed to their pen next to the house. All that was required was the occasional guidance from the people; for who is was the most normal thing in the world to share their road with a goat, most often chasing errant animals from the fields. Young children were riding sheep up the hill; toddlers toddled around oblivious to the risks of being knocked down but a large furry quadruped with horns longer than your arm. I just thought it so admirable that everyone was so at ease with their animals. Clearly these were people who enjoyed sharing their lives with livestock and it was a system that benefitted both parties.

Now it’s probably that the remarkable knowledge of the livestock I saw, which made herding them so simple compared to my experiences in the UK, is due to their age and experience. As Zanskar is a largely Buddhist society animals are very rarely slaughtered or harmed and so collectively they have a lot of age and experience. Even humans, with all our creativity seemingly infinite scope to wreak havoc, become more rational with age and so it makes sense that a more experienced animal is more likely to stick to the plan and do what’s expected of it. What’s more older animals have more time to teach youngsters how the system works much to everyone’s delight. I’m not trying to convince everyone that we should never cull animals because it might mess up routine but it’s just makes one think that perhaps there is understated value in keeping livestock to a greater age.

There was much more to be discovered and to do so we set about conducting a demographic survey of as many of the households in Kumik as possible. Of particular interest to me was the final question regarding the number and type of livestock owned by each household. This relatively simple method of collecting data was not without challenges but thankfully nothing too serious as all we had to worry about was rejection by the home-owner (not once did a person refuse to speak to us) and the possible embarrassment of having to ask where to find the toilet. The latter issues stemmed from the fact that hospitality is so great in Zanskar that in order to survey 2 or three families we had to drink at least 6 cups of tea! As I said it’s hardly the greatest adversary a researcher has ever met.

To pursue further knowledge of how livestock husbandry worked in Kumik I decided to see first-hand what goes on at the doksa. This place is effectively an over-night dairy built high above the village to be near the grazing lands for the cattle. Each night a group of 5-8 women from the village ascend the steep slopes to tend the cattle and usually this means staying the night. I dragged Kalsang along to interpret my investigations and we camped one night at the doksa so as to see how the cattle live in the summer months. Unfortunately we choose the coldest night of the month and so spent a frigid 6 hours trying to grasp sleep until the morning came. Not the most restful night of the expedition but none the less worth it! Upon arrival we were in awe of the women bringing the cattle in. During each day these animals roam far and wide across the valley up some incredibly steep slopes and so each evening they must be gathered into the corral for milking. To me it looked an exhausting task but 60 year old women succeeded without drawing an extra breath.

Next on the card was the milking for which task each lactating dam was tied up and her calf was brought into view while she was deftly milked. I tried but only managed to embarrass myself with my incredibly slow milking action. Time to leave it to the professionals methinks. Work all over and everyone retired to the stone huts around the pen and the Zanskari hospitality shone through. Chaang and tea flowed all evening so that everyone enjoyed themselves. I’m still in awe of how easily the people of Kumik simply enjoy themselves no matter the occasion for instance this was a bitterly cold night when we were all cramped in a minute building but still there were smiles all around.

As I said after not much sleep I dragged myself out of the tent, at 5:15am, and into the cool air to see how the morning activities panned out. It was all go in the doksa as everyone stoically got on with the jobs at hand while I watched. With the sky getting lighter every minute it was a beautiful sight, perched on a spur elevated above the valley and able to see the shadows recede from the sun down in the village below.  Before the sunlight reached our position the morning chores were complete and we could all head back down the hill to the usual marvellous breakfast. Despite the apparent discomforts of the night’s work I felt it was a job well done. However I’m not sure I could be a Zanskari farmer myself, or at least not without toughening up a great deal!

In this way and other my research efforts gave me a whole range of new experiences and helped me learn so much about a different way to keep animals. While Zanskari methods may not be as productive as our intensive farms there’s undoubtedly value to be found in the common knowledge of the people regarding where their food comes from. I didn’t exactly find the serene farming community as the books would show it but what I did find was far better just from the fact that it was real! In truth I think everyone deserves to know what has happened to the food on their plate in its former life and even if this doesn’t entail expeditions to remote places there’s so much we can learn about food production at home. I’m sorry that my experiences as detailed here won’t have much relevance to your own meals but I hope it’s encouraged you to think about what you’re eating.

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