Imagine running 1500 animals through the main street of a city, then mobbing them up and cutting their throats in protest.
The year was 1978. I remember it well, as it was a watershed year in my life. I'd taken a gap year after secondary school to try my hand at senior rugby with the big boys.
Many parts of Southland had suffered a crippling drought in 1978. Combine that with a season of industrial mayhem at the four local "freezing" works, and you had a powder keg waiting to explode. The meat companies, farmers, unions and workers were literally at each other's throats.
Lambs weren't worth much and the old ewes, who had selflessly given the best five or six years of their lives to bear the aforementioned lambs, were worthless. They had reached their use-by-date. As the dry summer rolled into autumn and beyond, the old ewes were eating scarce winter feed needed for their younger and more productive counterparts in the flock.
Industrial unrest and strike action was rife in the meat industry. The then Prime Minister Rob Muldoon had a running battle with the likes of Tom Skinner and Jim Knox, who were running the unions; some would say like Chicago teamsters, but Muldoon was far from without fault. The result was tens of thousands of starving livestock that could not be processed by meat companies. Something had to give.
Easter fell in late March in 1978. I had spent the summer shearing, mustering, working on the farm and training hard for rugby.
It was effectively still summer, dry as a chip, when I left home to attend the annual South Island Marist Easter rugby tournament in Ashburton. Summer turned to autumn, then to winter, before I was able to make it home from that rugby tournament – minus half a kidney – having clocked up more than two months in hospital.
And I remember vividly the day I finally got home. How could I forget it? It was June 9, 1978. It was the day of the Bloody Friday protest in Invercargill. To paraphrase a report of the day:
"A group of Southland farmers shocked the nation when they slaughtered 1500 sheep in the centre of town. In planning their protest, the farmers had told police they intended driving their trucks, loaded with the old ewes, through the central city and their protest would go no further. But once in the city centre they released their sheep on to the streets. Some were so old and weak they collapsed and died immediately - but others entered shops and offices and ate roadside shrubbery.
"Traffic and commerce was disrupted for an hour before the sheep were rounded up, herded into a vacant section and slaughtered. The farmers claimed those doing the killing were former freezing workers – but the resulting scenes of terrified animals being slaughtered were horrific and animal rights groups and many of the public were outraged.
"A makeshift drainage ditch overflowed with blood and carcasses piled up before they were finally dumped outside a local abattoir, ending one of this country's bloodiest protests."
Looking back upon it now, the Bloody Friday protest was barbaric and cruel. The old ewes were quite literally the "mutton" meat in the sandwich. They faced the butcher's knife or starvation as farmers were forced to choose between them or their younger in-lamb flock mates who were carrying the next season's lamb crop. Desperate times called for desperate measures. Frustration with strikes had reached crisis point. Rightly or wrongly, it was a protest for its time. It goes without saying it would not be tolerated today.
Did the Bloody Friday protest achieve anything? Well, the nation certainly sat up and took notice of the farmers' plight but the strikes and industrial unrest in the meat industry continued for the best part of another decade. Eventually, the militant unions were depowered and deregulated by the Bolger government but the ultimate losers were the meat workers - also the meat in the sandwich - whose employment conditions have worsened in the intervening four-and-a-bit decades.
Thankfully, these days, farmers and the unions have made their peace. The recent Groundswell protests proved that for many farmers, their beef is now with the government.
Bloody Friday tragically saw 1500 sheep sacrificed in protest. Forty-three years on, and the boot is on the other foot. It's the farmers themselves who don't want to be sacrificial lambs on the altar of Ministers David Parker and James Shaw.