The unlikely giant-killers

April 23 2001

FIONA Cowie was outwardly confident about the prospects of saving her sheep, but privately she feared the worst.

Secretly, she hired a vet to ensure her sheep and lambs died with dignity if the Ministry of Agriculture got its way.

Yesterday she could relax again, after Ministry lawyers withdrew their High Court application for an injunction which would have allowed vets to seize her sheep.

For her and all the Anglesey Six group of protesters, it was a stunning victory. Six ordinary women (a seventh has avoided publicity) took on the might of the agricultural establishment and gained a result which casts serious doubt on the legitimacy of Anglesey's pre-emptive cull.

It has also created a precedent which threatens elements of the Ministry's UK cull policy. There is unlikely to be a repeat of Anglesey's unique mass cull and other protesters - cases in Essex and Devon are still pending - will now draw heart from the decision.

The U-turn was welcomed by John Gouriet, chairman of campaigning group Freedom in Action, one of the parties challenging the High Court application.

"We were left with no competition. It was what you might call a walk-over," said Mr Gouriet.

"This result has vital implications for everyone threatened with the cull of their healthy stock. Animals will now have to be blood-tested and the tests found positive for the foot-and-mouth virus before they can be slaughtered."

Instead of celebrations, however, there was only muted satisfaction among the Anglesey Six. Their Bristol-based lawyers had advised them not to crow about their victory, and most were at pains to dismiss any signs of jubilation.

But some still harbour a deep unease about the way the cull was conducted and whether it was necessary at all.

For many commercial farmers, the absence of further outbreaks on Anglesey is justification enough for the slaughter of 47,000 sheep. The urgency of the situation precluded widespread blood testing but hindsight has provided some with ammunition against the Ministry and the National Assembly.

Almost 2,000 samples from 14 premises (out of about 300 farms) have been taken, and although only a few results are available, all have so far been negative.

As a result, some observers now wonder whether the mass cull was too draconian. The Assembly's order to "contiguous cull" in Mid-Wales was made the day after Anglesey's blanket slaughter was agreed, and this policy appears to have been effective in an area which was much harder hit.

Meurig Evans, an Anglesey vet commandeered by the Ministry, said the smallholders had been "selfish" and had put at risk the whole of the island's agriculture.

"We've been criticised for acting too quickly and we've been criticised for acting too slowly. You can't win," he said.

However, the collapse of the Anglesey Six case raises the possibility that the Assembly had no legal right to order the mass cull of healthy animals.

Welsh Conservative agriculture spokesman Peter Rogers levelled a charge of incompetence against Rural Affairs Minister Carwyn Jones.

Mr Rogers said: "If it is shown that the Minister has acted beyond his powers then his position would become untenable.

"If he had no legal power to order the mass cull of healthy animals then he has shown the highest level of Ministerial incompetence - it would be obvious what he would have to do.

"I accept the slaughter policy as part of our efforts to control the disease, but the Minister's decisions must have a basis in law."

At the Assembly yesterday, Mr Jones was clearly irked the Anglesey Six women had beaten the system due to the delays caused by the legal processes.

If called to court, Ministry vets would have had to certify that the animals were a disease risk and because of the passage of time - the last foot-and-mouth case on Anglesey was almost a month ago - they were unwilling to do so.

Mr Jones said: "MAFF needs to plug this legal loophole as soon as possible."

A Ministry spokesman said vets would continue to monitor Anglesey's situation: "If there is a high disease risk, we may have to reconsider. But we have accepted the arguments for the time being."

In Cumbria and Devon, where protests are much in evidence, the widespread nature of the outbreaks means a similar challenge would be unlikely to succeed.

Bonnie Kurmos, who farms next to an infected premise at Lôn Dywod, Llangristiolus, spent £600 on a vet to humanely dispose of her animals despite opposing the cull. All the Anglesey Six protesters insist they would have done the same, too.

"If our animals had been contiguous, or had posed any danger of spreading infection, I would have had no hesitation in giving them up," said Fiona Cowie, who has 13 organic sheep at Brynsiencyn.

They might still have to: If any of their animals test positive, they will be slaughtered.

The Anglesey Six have expressed their thanks to the hundreds of well-wishers who sent letters of support.

"I did not have a single letter, postcard or telephone call opposing what we were doing," said Anne Lympany, who owns four sheep at Newborough.

However, they owe their success to an unnamed charity which heard about the group and agreed to underwrite their legal costs. Ken Tyrell, one of the most prominent vets in the 1967 outbreak, had also agreed to appear as an expert witness.

Their case was due to go before the High Court last Friday, but was adjourned.

Is it all over? The group's 250 sheep will survive, tests permitting, but one disgruntled farmer said the island "will not forget".

He said: "The local pubs, post offices and shops know who they are. They will be treated by many as scabs. How will they be able to look other farmers in the eye after this?"

'Anglesey Six' win historic fight to save pet animals from cull

THE Anglesey Six group of cull protesters have defeated Government attempts to slaughter their sheep.

Welsh Rural Affairs Minister Carwyn Jones faced a humiliating climbdown when Ministry of Agriculture lawyers withdrew their High Court legal action against the group.

Mr Jones last night demanded an end to the "legal loophole" which allowed the smallholders to slip through the pre-emptive cull net.

"It must be plugged as soon as possible," he said.

On a day of bleak news for the island's farming community, the annual Anglesey Show, which attracts attendances of 50,000 people, was cancelled.

And medical experts yesterday began investigating a suspected human case of foot-and-mouth when a Cumbria slaughterman was found to have mouth blisters.

Elsewhere, the Assembly's national strategy to dispose of animal carcasses took a further battering.

In Flintshire, council leaders won a reprieve in their bid to stop the Brookhill tip at Buckley being used. And no more carcasses were to be burned at the controversial Eppynt site, Mid-Wales, once the area had been cleared, said Carwyn Jones.

The collapse of the Anglesey Six case, including that of hobby farmer Anne Lympany, now raises the possibility that the Assembly had no legal right to order the compulsory cull of healthy animals.

Anglesey Tory AM Peter Rogers said that, if it was shown the cull's legitimacy was not properly researched before being implemented, Mr Jones should resign.

Freedom in Action - one of the parties challenging the High Court application - said the Anglesey Six case had set a UK-wide precedent. Group chairman John Gouriet said all healthy animals would now have to be blood-tested before they were slaughtered.

President of the Farmers' Union of Wales, Bob Parry, said the decision was a "bitter pill", adding: "It is shameful that, faced with legal action, the Assembly has simply caved in. Farmers who have seen their animals culled on Anglesey will feel betrayed by today's legal climbdown."

Fiona Cowie, who runs a smallholding near Brynsiencyn with her partner, David Chadwick, said she was pleased by the outcome and would comply with requests to blood-test her animals.

Biology lecturer Ms Cowie, who has five sheep and eight lambs, said: "The main thing is that they do not have to be killed so I hope the tests will be all right. The sheep have been running with cattle, so I'm sure they will be."

She added: "I am relieved. It is a strange emotion really as we have been living on tenterhooks."

Preliminary test results on Anglesey's culled animals have failed to reveal positive cases but David Pugh, divisional veterinary manager for North Wales, last night insisted the island's mass cull was the right decision.

"There was no question that the virus was present in the sheep population because of the nature of its spread from one place to another.

"We had the choice of getting ahead of the disease or doing nothing, which wasn't really an option."

Because foot-and-mouth was difficult to diagnose in sheep, it was likely the virus was endemic in flocks without farmers knowing it, he added.