In an earlier post I mentioned staying at a farmhouse B&B and helping to put the turkeys to bed at night. The family there said they’d started raising chickens and turkeys, intending to eat them all, but found they were too soft-hearted to kill a single bird; the poultry experiment had turned into an expensive hobby and the birds into pets. So when I talked to my local egg farmer (see previous post), I wondered whether she just sold eggs, or whether the chickens eventually appeared on the dinner table.
She told me that some varieties of chickens are kept for eggs, and different varieties are raised for meat. What happens to her chickens when they no longer lay eggs? Here she hemmed and hawed and didn’t want to answer.
Britain is famously a nation of animal lovers. With the average person here concerned about animal welfare, and with animal rights organizations ranging from the ardent to the militant—and according to some into the terroristic—ready to picket (or worse) at the drop of a feather, I can see why the farmer wasn’t too sure she wanted to tell me what happens to her elderly laying hens. But eventually she did come out with it: she gives them to the Gurkhas.
Gurkhas, in this context, means members of the British Army’s Brigade of Gurkhas, made up of soldiers from Nepal known here as especially fierce, brave fighters. (An Indian Army official famously said that if a man says he’s not afraid of dying, he’s either lying or a Gurkha.)
Gurkhas have been part of Britain’s armed forces since 1815, and while the Brigade’s headquarters and training sites have been located in different places, they are historically associated with Aldershot. So when I go to my gym in Aldershot, I see rather more Gurkhas than you might otherwise expect to run into in Hampshire: generally shortish, powerfully-built people with almond eyes in round, dark-brown faces. Once in a while there’ll be a soldier in uniform—the Brigade’s insignia includes a crossed pair of khukris (or kukris or khukuris), traditional Gurkha fighting knives—but it’s more usual to see women with children, or older couples: he’ll usually be in western clothes with a pointed wooly cap, and she’ll be in a western coat over an ankle-length sarong-like skirt of colorful cloth.
Recently, older Gurkhas have fought in the courts to be allowed to remain in the UK after retirement, and to get the same retirement pay as other British soldiers. When the British Army first recruited Gurkhas, it was with the colonialist assumption that they would return to Nepal on retirement and wouldn’t need as much pay. While arrangements today aren’t the same as those in1815, change hadn’t kept pace with the realities of the modern world, but recent campaigns have resulted in some court victories that have improved the situation. Actress Joanna Lumley’s support for the campaign—her father was a British officer with the Gurkhas, and a Gurkha soldier once saved his life—ensures a lot of publicity.
The average Gurkha shopper on the streets of Aldershot isn’t after publicity, so I didn’t think it would be polite to ask anybody to stop their shopping to pose for my camera. All I can offer, then, is shots of businesses catering to Gurkhas; on the way to the gym I pass the Buddha Convenience Store and the Everest Cash and Carry, which currently displays a poster advertising the Miss UK Nepal 2010 competition. (Alas, as in many beauty competitions around the world, the contestants pictured are far lighter-skinned than the average Gurkhas I pass on the street, or the young lady at the Everest, where I go to buy mango pickle and okra.)
So what do Gurkhas want with chickens? They’re used in training exercises, for practice living off the land in hostile territory. Hostile territory, that is, featuring elderly domestic hens—but I suppose everybody has to start somewhere.