Why my heart was breaking

By Chris Rundle C.Rundle@bepp.co.uk

Western Daily Press May 18, 2001

It took 25 shots to kill five cattle, and Bill Norman is wondering why more people are not upset about it.

Twenty-five shots, each counted by the villagers in Knowstone against a chorus of agonised bellowing as wounded animals tried to escape from the white-coated slaughter team.

And that was only the start. As the bullocks stampeded across neighbouring fields they turned what was supposed to be a clinical operation to deal with Devon’s 164th foot-and-mouth outbreak into a three-day fiasco.

It saw marksmen stalking frightened animals across the North Devon countryside before finishing them off, not always cleanly.

The weapons they used were shotguns, firing cartridges fitted with a single, round shot.

But with no rifling in the barrel or on the projectile, the speed of the shot and the killing range were limited. And with spooked, stampeding cattle, mistakes were inevitable.

On Tuesday villagers looked down on the killing grounds to see one bullock go down twice and get up again before a third shot finished it off.

Another was hit in the spine, losing the use of its back legs; it was left pitifully trying to raise itself on its front pair for five minutes until the slaughtermen returned to dispatch it.

It was not until Wednesday that a stalker who normally shoots deer for the National Trust on its Holnicote Estate located and shot the last of John Stanbury’s cattle near the Jubilee Inn, a mile away to the North, close to the old A361

And by that time they had brought in search-lights to help them load up the other carcasses and cart them away under cover of darkness.

"That," says Bill, "was so that no one would see the bullet holes."

Even by the standards of MAFF’s brutal, ruthless cull of foot-and-mouth victims, the Knowstone episode was extraordinary And for Bill Norman it has changed forever the character of the tiny village.

There is a feeling of timelessness about Knowstone’s main street of whitewashed cottages.

One family has been in the same local farm since 1540. The Masons’ Arms has been dispensing ale and a warm welcome for 300 years longer.

Change, if it ever happens, normally occurs only as fast as local people want it to. Even when they carved the North Devon link road through the moors a mile to the South to allow the holiday traffic to thunder over to Barnstaple, Knowstone was barely interested.

In Knowstone they call Bill the mayor. He is in fact chairman of the parish council and still, he says, regarded as an incomer even though he moved from Combe Martin, just 30 miles to the North, 52 years ago.

He came with some of his father’s dairy cattle and has maintained a closed herd since then, though it’s his daughter, Annie, who now manages them on Wadham Farm. Life for Bill, like all dairy farmers, has been tough over the past few years, certainly far tougher than it was in the days when Wadham Farm’s income could endow Oxford’s Wadham College.

But nothing could have prepared him for the events of the past week.

"It has been total confusion and it still is," he said. "The Army doesn’t know what MAFF is doing and MAFF doesn’t know what the Army is doing. No one seems to be in charge

"But to see the killing happening like that in the fields below the village was just awful. We have had teenagers in tears, we have had everyone up in arms, but trying to get any answers from the ministry is impossible. They have just shut up shop."

Bill, like the other villagers, is determined to get answers, however long it takes, though at the moment his immediate concern is for his own animals, which may soon be caught up in the fall-out from the Knowstone outbreak.

He added: "But funnily enough the effect of this has been to pull us all together. Now we are really all in this together, and we’re all fighting it together. It’s us against them."

Yesterday the cock-ups were still happening. A ministry team arrived at Les Winslade’s farm to start cleaning up after his pedigree cattle were shot.

But the cattle were still very much alive, barricaded in the farm with their owner, who has now decided to mount a legal challenge to the threatened cull.

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