Sacrificial lambs

Farmer Alan Beat will not offer up his flock to save a ‘senseless’ export industry

Financial Times 21 April 2001

Thirteen years ago I moved away from the pressures of UK industry for a new lifestyle in small-holding, and now live with my family on 16 acres in rural Devon. We have bred our own small sheep flock over this time by selecting for high fleece quality; this forms the basis of small enterprises in hand-spinning, natural dyeing, craft courses and school visits.

Now we find ourselves in a foot-and-mouth disease hotspot where the policy of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food includes the slaughter of healthy livestock on farms adjoining infected sites. Small. holders such as us are living in dread, not of the disease itself, but of the Mall killing squads that circle around it.

Foot-and-mouth disease is an unpleasant viral condition that affects cloven-hoofed animals, but is rarely fatal to adult stock and most definitely Is not the "killer plague" that we have been misled into believing. This outbreak has clearly illustrated that symptoms are difficult to spot, or even non-existent, in adult sheep.

We already live with, and routinely vaccinate against, serious conditions such as enterotoxaemia — a bacterial invasion of the digestive system; and lamb dysentery, so why not vaccinate against foot-and-mouth?

There is much scientific debate on this issue, but there is a strong body-of international support in favour of vaccination as an integral part of disease control. The UK is thus largely isolated in its slaughter-only policy. No other country has ever attempted a cull on this scale before. It Is unknown territory, yet recent outbreaks elsewhere have been quickly and effectively halted by vaccination, with slaughter limited only to small numbers of infected animals at the source.

Historically, Britain has led the world into believing that efficient management can eradicate foot-and-mouth, so that "diseasefree status" has been written into the rules of world trade. But now the UK Is caught in this trap of its own making, as many other countries have promptly banned imports of our meat and meat products. To escape the bans and resume exports, the UK must regain its disease-free status.

This lies at the heart of the crisis. The disease itself Is not dangerous, there are no risks to human health, and so all that remains is the economic case. While foot-and-mouth disease is present, the UK’s agricultural exports are blocked.

What are these exports? Nearly all are to European Union member states, with insignificant amounts to the rest of the world. Leaving aside products that are not affected by disease status, government figures for 2000 show exports worth 310m, of which sheep-related products are the most significant item by far at 250m. This represents 125,000 tonnes, or 32 per cent of total UK output, or about 7m lambs. Most of this left our shores as meat, but 764,000 live lambs were transported by road to France, the Netherlands, Italy and Greece.

Horrific journeys of up to 48 hours in triple-decked lorries, each holding 2,000 animals, and ending in slaughter at unsuitable premises, have been graphically portrayed in the media. It Is partly to return to this live trade, loathed by the public and by many farmers, that the UK government is now slaughtering healthy livestock on a vast scale. Provisional figures for 2000 show that imports of sheep meat totalled 129,000 tonnes (4,000 tonnes more than was exported). So in reality the UK needs all its lamb, and has to import frozen lamb from New Zealand to make up the shortfall, caused by exporting a third of its own produce. Spare me the "global free market" cry, for no sane person can pretend that this makes any sense. The truth Is that the "export trade" so desperately defended by farming leaders and government alike is a myth.

Against the perceived "loss of exports" must be balanced the cost of implementing the slaughter policy. Compensation to farmers for slaughtered livestock and associated losses is 600m so far and rising fast, but this pales Into insignificance beside the cost to the wider economy. Estimates vary, but by any reckoning the UK economy has already been damaged by many times more than the value of "lost exports". The tourism and leisure Industry alone is said to be losing l00m a week. A six-month epidemic could well cause damage of several billion pounds to the economy as a whole. So how can this mass slaughter policy make economic sense?

We are left wondering why it Is that the National Farmers Union resolutely refuses to accept international scientific advice and the increasing groundswell of public opinion within the UK that vaccination, even at this advanced stage should be used to control the epidemic.

The NFU, led by president Ben Gill, has betrayed the best interests of those it claims to represent. More than 1,000. members have lost their livestock and their living, with several thousands more to follow, and for what? On top of that, the NFU only speaks for fewer than one In three farmers as its membership now stands at just 53,000 out of a UK total of 180,000.

A growing number of farmers are questioning Maff’s right to slaughter uninfected sheep. The legal situation is a grey area, and one website, , offers farmers suggestions on how to argue their case to save their stock.

Personally, I am not prepared to sacrifice our sheep flock, which is very special to us, In order to regain an export trade that has no economic basis in reality. The barbaric slaughter policy should be abandoned in favour of a more rational and consensual approach, using vaccination alongside localised slaughter of only infected livestock. A vaccination programme does not mean the permanent loss of "disease free status" and so meat exports (but not live lambs, please) could In time be resumed — but only where there is a real need to export.

This crisis Is entirely created by man, not disease. It need not be a crisis at all, and no more healthy animals should be pointlessly slaughtered.