WEDNESDAY MAY 23 2001
This wretched cult of blood and money
SIMON JENKINS
http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/0,,256-2001170563,00.html
The priests of the Golden Calf have driven the caravan of death into Yorkshire’s Dales. The destruction will be horrible. The finest upland walking in England will be closed for the season. From the Forest of Bowland to Wharfedale via Gordale Scar and Malham Tarn, the only tourists will be the angels of death in white Land Rovers. They will arrive with captive bolt guns and millions of pounds in Treasury cheques. They will leave a scorched earth such as the Dales have not seen in half a century. And all for the Golden Calf.

Does the Government care? There is no Government, only politicians fighting an election. Policy on foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) is now running on autopilot. Pro-vaccination farmers are in open revolt. Government scientists deride contiguous slaughter. Statisticians are ordered to massage any figure, suppress any outbreak, to prove the “policy is working”. The front pages must be kept otherwise engaged. Everyone is told to keep culling and keep quiet.

As long as the Golden Calf policy holds sway — protecting livestock exports to Europe — the slaughter will continue and the taxpayer will pay. Nothing in the entire history of the common agricultural policy has been so crazy. The slaughter is not declining but running at 80,000 a day, against 33,000 when the outbreak was supposedly at its peak two months ago. At the last estimate, 95 per cent of the three to four million animals dead or awaiting death are healthy. There can be no hypocratic oath for vets. The cost of destroying rather than eating these animals is now enormous, an estimated 600 million in direct compensation. And it must “work”. Killing ever more animals must by definition reduce the number susceptible to infection.

The obscenity of the policy is said to be irrelevant “because of its success”. Yet what other industry would be allowed to protect its profits by paying soldiers to kill piglets with spades and drown lambs in streams? What other industry could get civil servants to bury cattle alive or take potshots at cows from a 60ft range? What other industry can summon teams from Whitehall to roam the lanes of the Forest of Dean, as one frantic farmer telephoned me, “like Nazi stormtroopers seeking healthy sheep to kill on the authority of a map reference”? I told her pathetically to raise a barricade and call a lawyer. The 3km-cull has now been accepted by Imperial College, with desperate understatement, as “over-draconian”.

As for Mr Brown’s oft-repeated claim that vaccinated meat would be unsaleable and unexportable, his own soldiers are eating it! The Defence Ministry is Britain’s biggest importer of Argentine beef. If meat from a country with endemic foot-and-mouth is both exportable and eatable by Britons what does Mr Brown mean by this mendacity? FMD is no threat to humans and animals can be vaccinated against it. He is killing healthy animals not from any concern for welfare but to help livestock exports. I cannot imagine another industry that would be protected in this appalling fashion by government.

The Yorkshire outbreak shows what many experts predicted, that the mobility of British animals and the fallability of regulation make control of FMD near impossible. Paying full market compensation to livestock owners has eroded self-discipline. The veterinary consensus is that only “dangerous contact” between animals carries infection, but one contact is enough. More than 300 farmers and dealers are under investigation for illegal movements and every farm reporter knows the pub talk of sheep being moved at night, to avoid culling or to win compensation. With sheep and wild animals roaming the hills, rules are unenforceable. The outbreak may die down, but will flare again.

When I asked a senior vet if the mass slaughter policy would be used next time, he replied that it was politically inconceivable. The reply was significant, since it accepted that the policy was political. As we have seen, it can be waived if it endangers Downing Street’s image, as with Phoenix the calf, the tearful farmer and the gutsy Exeter lawyer. It is a novel concept in British law that a government can, without hearing or appeal, bankrupt large numbers of businesses to protect just one, especially where vaccination is available to relieve animal suffering. Such partiality must be challengeable at law.

So where is the Euro-directive that permits the contiguous cull and the use of taxpayers’ money to finance it? What about compensation for stress and trauma? What about consequential business loss? Ninety per cent of farmers do not have insurance cover for losses over and above compensation. Other businesses may have cover for “business interruption” and could yet sue their insurers. As The Times reported yesterday, losses arising from “disease” may embrace animal diseases as well as human ones. And will the Government pick up what will be a huge reinsurance burden, as after the IRA bombs? This is money beyond counting.

This crisis is not over. The tourist industry is not just reeling but in disarray. Any visitor to the countryside knows that it is not “open for business” as the Government claims. The business of the countryside is not just motoring. The 15 per cent of footpaths said to be accessible are so random as to be useless. Most long-distance footpaths, even those miles from an infected area, still carry a penalty of a 5,000 fine. Adjacent lanes and golf courses are open, but that is because their users have more clout than walkers.

As for historic houses and other attractions, chaos reigns. In Kent last weekend, I found the National Trust’s Knole closed for foot-and- mouth, with no risk of a dangerous contact for a hundred miles. English Heritage’s Down House was closed for the same extraordinary reason, despite being on a public road in the London Borough of Bromley. In the Welsh Marches two weeks earlier, I found Stokesay, Croft and Hartlebury castles shut, but Eastnor Castle and Attingham open. In the Cotswolds, Dyrham and its fine deer park contrived to be open, but Snowshill was shut. In Norfolk, cars were being turned away from Holkham and Houghton on Bank Holiday Monday, yet were welcome at Felbrigg and Blickling.

This is pure frustration for visitors told that Britain is “open”. No guidebook is reliable. Foreigners should be told that they need a car, a mobile phone and a directory and should forget about hiking. As the BBC’s Farming Today reported, some landowners are happy for any excuse to keep their footpaths shut. Houses required to open through grant-aid are equally happy to keep out the public. No courtesy is shown. Signs are not posted on adjacent roads. Last month I joined a tail of cursing drivers trying to U-turn outside Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire. No one had thought to stop them on the road outside. This is an industry ill-led and careless of its market.

The Government has decided generously to compensate stock farmers for the direct cost of foot-and-mouth. Yet the cost its policy has imposed, directly and indirectly, on the rest of the economy is reckoned at between 9 billion and 20 billion. This is disproportionate, ludicrous maladministration. Even the British Museum faces a 10 per cent drop in visitors against a budgeted rise. Now any summer revival is to be blighted by an outbreak and doubtless massive slaughter programme in the Pennines. There is no contest. If a fraction of the money and energy being devoted to protecting livestock exports were devoted to helping the far greater number of businesses crippled by that protection, the countryside and the nation would be vastly better off.

We are told the rural economy is to be reviewed in the light of foot-and-mouth. Good. But there is no sign of a lessening in the power of the National Farmers’ Union, which last month refused to let government vets vaccinate livestock. If rumours from the Cabinet Office are true, the review’s most likely outcome will be the planning equivalent of a terminator gene. The Government will compensate farmers yet further by freeing their land for housebuilding. After killing the animals they will concrete over the fields.

Thus is the British countryside dragged to the scaffold, by a calf named Phoenix in a coat of gold.

simon.jenkins@thetimes.co.uk