Remarks of Jonathan Miller Sunday Times Mean Fields columnist
10 April 2001
When Jack Vowles asked me many months ago if I would speak today I readily agreed imagining the job would require little more than a few jokes.
I have accumulated quite a few tales in my year and a bit as an apprentice peasant in the Mean Fields of the Surrey-West Sussex Border.
It was a couple of years ago when I was in Chafa Prushit in the mountains on the Albanian-Kosovo border, with Serbian mortar fire growing uncomfortably close, that I thought there might be a more congenial way to make a living.
So when I returned home to Hampstead, north London, I looked for material closer to home. So we sold the house, bought ourselves a smallholding and moved to the country.
I ordered a John Deere 6200, bought a few sheep, installed my horses then at livery in Hertfordshire, bought another horse since if two are good then three are better, and proceeded to reinvent myself.
Shortly after starting the column I got an email from a nice man at Thames Water wanting to know whether he could interest me in a product they have on offer called Terra Liquid.
And what might that be, I asked.
There was a certain mumbling about it being a by product of the various processes undertaken by Thames Water after the flush - and so of course even with my limited knowledge of such matters I cottoned on immediately.
How badly does it smell? I asked, thinking it might be nice to spread a bit of this on one of my fields adjacent to the cottage of an especially obnoxious neighbour.
Sadly, the man from the water company told me that it was really rather benign since it had to be drilled into the field in any case. So I was disappointed.
But then the man from Thames said he had another product that might do well for me sludge. Much smellier. Not only would they provide it free but they would help me put it to good use by showing me how I could use it to grow hemp. As in Cannabis.
A joint venture, so to speak.
I rapidly did some calculations and figured that at a yield of a couple of tons per hectare, and a value of, call it £50 an ounce, farming could be rather profitable after all.
But then the Thames Water man disabused me and pointed out that the only sort of hemp I would be allowed to grow was of a quality unsuitable for high margin resale in Brixton. Putting it bluntly, he said, youd have to roll a joint the size of a telephone pole.
And where would you get a big enough Rizla paper?
I am sorry Tim Yeo has gone since I recall he has not only admitted participating in the consumption of the devil weed but actually enjoying it. In fact, given some of the statements he has been making of late I wonder whether he is still smoking the stuff. But I shall return to Mr Yeo in a moment.
More recently, however, I am afraid that the irony has gone from the Mean Fields and I have found myself where I started, as a war correspondent.
This is a war not of ethnic cleansing but ovine cleansing and it comes complete with talk of taking out the enemy. Of pre-emptive strikes. And even some of the same solders I found messing down at a muddy camp outside Pristina.
Not only have I lost most of my sense of humour over the past eight weeks but I have discovered hitherto unknown reservoirs of rage at the stupidity, mendacity and senseless waste I see around me.
So I must apologise to my hosts that what I have to say today is not funny.
I had thought British political parties and British politicians - were as a breed, irrespective of party, sterile and ignorant and more or less like Albanian and Serbian politicians, in it 110% for themselves.
I had reckoned the NFU was a dreadful, undemocratic organisation.
I figured the British civil service were arrogant, mendacious cock-up artists.
But I could hardly have imagined the pure venality I have discovered as I have covered the story of FMD.
I do not suppose it is good form to be rude to fellow guests at a lunch that one is not even paying for. But so be it. Sometimes it is a journalists duty to confront evil. If you dont like it, you dont have to invite me back.
We are here today as the country is being tormented by a policy that is frankly irresponsible, shameful and disgusting.
Britain is amidst an animal and human welfare crisis. A self-inflicted environmental catastrophe. Administrative shambles. And lunatic economics.
Our war against sheep is costing us perhaps £10 billion and for what? To protect livestock exports worth perhaps a 20th of this. This is the most expensive barbecue in history.
The cruelty of this is shameful and I think it is a national humiliation.
Allow me to read to you from a story on the front page of yesterdays Daily Telegraph:
KIRSTIN McBRIDE arrived home from work to find her goat, Misty, lying dead in the drive.
Miss McBride, 21, her mother, Elizabeth Walls, and step-father, George Walls, live in Mouswald, Dumfries, with their dogs, a pony and the goat. Mrs Walls said: "Misty was part of us." When foot and mouth broke out, they put the pony and goat in a barn and made sure that all visitors were disinfected.
On April 2, a veterinary surgeon rang to say he had been authorised to dispose of it.
The family begged him to test Misty first. The next day another veterinary surgeon tried to convince them. Mrs Walls said: "We padlocked Misty in the barn just to make sure." Last Thursday evening, a third veterinary surgeon came to the house to explain that he had to destroy their goat.
Mrs Walls said again she wanted a test carried out first. She said: "I couldn't bear it if she was healthy and they killed her. I didn't think they could force you to have an uninfected pet put down."
The veterinary surgeon said he would call the police and two arrived. Mrs Walls said: "They came into the kitchen and asked for a chat. After 15 minutes we heard a blood-curdling scream."
Miss McBride had arrived home from her job as a rail operator at Lockerbie station to find three Land Rovers blocking the road and her goat lying dead with a plastic bag over its head.
Miss McBride was handcuffed and taken to the local police station but released after three hours. An officer said last night: "A 21-year-old woman has been arrested and charged with a number of offences. She will appear in court this Tuesday."
Mrs Walls said: "If the goat had been a carrier, of course she would have had to go. But this was so cruel. We couldn't even say goodbye." Their neighbour, Juanita Wilson, said: "It's becoming a police state. We're all frightened for our pets now."
Lets name the guilty men. We dont have to look far. Conveniently I have at hand representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture, which has revealed itself once again as stupendously incompetent, arrogant, ignorant and deceitful.
The National Farmers Union, no less deceitful, which is completely complicit in Maffs outrageous performance. Also represented here.
I will not dwell on Blair who has taken personal charge of this and who took independent advice recommending vaccination before he was bullied by the NFU.
The Conservative Party has disgraced itself by supporting the policy. In fact the best on offer from the Tories is to kill more, faster.
This isnt even 19th century it is medieval. We live in the 21st century. We have eliminated smallpox. We have virtually eliminated polio. We vaccinate our children against mumps, measles and rubella. The government spends millions telling us to do this.
And we slaughter a million animals and plan to kill who knows how many million more most of them perfectly healthy and the remainder suffering from a preventable, treatable infection that according to the USDA is usually fatal to fewer than 1% of infected animals. Except in Britain where it is fatal to animals that are not even infected.
Lets start with Maff. They have misled and deceived from the beginning of this outbreak:
Falsely stating that vaccination would permanently compromise Britain's trading status; falsely claiming that EU rules prohibit vaccination; falsely claiming to have controlled the epizootic when this is manifestly not the case; seeking without legal authority to cull healthy animals; condemning countless animals to miserable conditions because they cannot be moved; suppressing debate about alternative strategies; imposing massive costs and disruption on the entire country; censoring and distorting information; putting our rare breeds at risk and bringing businessmen like yourselves to the brink of ruin.
And all on the basis of a doctrine that is profoundly unscientific, ignorant and unspeakably wasteful and cruel.
Lets turn to the NFU which has also lied and misled from the beginning of this outbreak.
The NFU website claims it to be a democratic organisation representing British farmers. This is only the first of the untrue statements of the NFU. It isnt democratic and does not represent all farmers. On FMD it has offered us a catalogue of misinformation, deceit and outright venality.
According to Ben Gill, "First of all you need multiple injections, you have a primary injection, a booster after one month and then every six months;"
This is a travesty of the truth, as far as ring vaccination is concerned.
According to Ben Gill vaccination is, "not effective for at least 15 days and it could be even longer,"
This is another NFU lie. With high payload emergency vaccines protection can occur between 2 and 4 days of the primary injection, against airborne challenge. Clinical protection and reduction in virus shedding occurs quickly. The longer the period that elapses between vaccination and disease challenge, the higher the protection.
The farmer's president goes on to state that vaccination: "isn't the solution it's made out to be and at the end of the day the animals have to be slaughtered because they're indistinguishable from those that have foot-and-mouth when you do blood tests."
Another lie. Scientifically validated tests exist in Europe, South America and the US. These can distinguish between antibodies acquired from vaccination from those occurring as a result of infection. It is ludicrous to state that vaccinated animals must be slaughtered.
This isnt me saying this. It is the top experts in the world saying it the ones not employed by the British government.
Let me turn to the Conservative party, which has been a disgrace from the beginning of this outbreak. I quote William Hague:
We have supported all the measures that the Government has taken since the first outbreak. The Conservative Party has always supported the Government in its slaughter policy. The only reason why the slaughter and burn policy has not worked is because the Government has not made available the resources needed to make it work.
What complete nonsense this is! The Dutch have used vaccination as a first resort. And the Germans will, too, if it crosses their frontier. And so will the Americans, the Canadians and the Mexicans, if they need to.
As a former McKinsey management consultant I expect blinding ignorance from William Hague. But Mr Yeo ought to know better.
So I would ask him, if he was here: Have you read the report into the 1967 outbreak, Mr Yeo? I ask because he has failed to return any of my telephone calls.
Since I assume from your own ill-informed statements on FMD that you are as ignorant of this inquiry as you are about epizootics generally, let me refresh your recollection
The report stated that the 1967 epidemic was the most serious experienced in Great Britain within this century.
It subscribed to the previous Gower Commission on FMD (1954) which stated that slaughter is a crude and primitive way of dealing with the disease. We recognise the mental anguish it may cause to those who suffer ...the shattering disaster, not computable in terms of money, that it may bring to a farmer who has to see the work of a lifetime destroyed in a day.
Elsewhere the report covers the costs of the epidemic. It is impossible to put forward a reasoned estimate of the total cost ... to the community as a whole ... Estimates were £35.1 million (culling) and including the community as a whole between £70million to £150 million in 1968 values.
In several places the Committee also reported on the carrier status of animals.
The consensus of opinion among our scientific witnesses was that the danger of carrier animals had been exaggerated and that carriers in a susceptible population did not constitute a significant risk.
Vaccination was also very much part of the report and of their final Recommended Policy 4.
We recommend that contingency plans for the application of ring vaccination should be kept in constant readiness. Elsewhere in the report they estimated that if ring vaccination had begun early, the number of outbreaks might have been reduced to about half.
It might be better if we simply read this 1968 Report and put it into action rather than waste more money having a new inquiry.
Mr Yeo has I presume been taking his briefings on this from the NFU as he shows no sign of familiarity with any of the science.
Let me read from a letter from Prof Fred Brown, FRS,
of the United States Department of Agriculture, to the Countess Mar. Prof Brown is widely
recognised as one of the top experts on FMD in the world.
Dear Margaret, If you are going to pursue your interest in
foot-and-mouth disease, here are a few facts you may wish to consider.
1. Infected animals can be distinguished from vaccinated animals by a
simple test of their blood.
2. If a vaccinated animal becomes infected it can be identified by the
test described in 1.
3. If the animals in 2. become infected and then become carrier animals
it is extremely unlikely that they would pass on the virus to other animals.
Many attempts to infect naive animals by bringing them into contact with
carrier animals have failed. There is, as far as I know, just one reported case.
If it is decided to ring vaccinate, this would reduce the virus load
enormously. In addition it would be ludicrous to slaughter the
vaccinated animals subsequently.
What kind of country is this?
We have seen our transportation system seize up, our criminal justice system become a laughing stock, our schools become amongst the worst in the developed world and our hospitals descend into filth.
But rarely can there have been a case when the British establishment has revealed itself as so outstanding useless as this one.
There are plenty of others who emerge from this tale in disgrace.
The RSPCA, which is still banging on about foxhunting. The RCVS, whose members are supposed to put animal welfare above all else but stands quietly aside as pet goats, alpacas, and even a herd of Bison are senselessly slaughtered.
The Countryside Alliance, whose director is a New Labour stooge and whose website was used to recruit more vets for the slaughter. Much of the media with some honourable exceptions - which remains more interested in the ramblings of minor royals than in getting to the bottom of this.
What I should really like to do is order up a tanker of two of Terra liquid from my friends at Thames Water, drive into Smith Square and thoroughly hose down both Maff and Conservative Central office across the way.
As for the NFU, I reckon some railway sleepers, bales of straw and a few hundred gallons of red diesel out to cull them out rather effectively.
I apologise for my sense of humour failure. I am disgusted. I hope you are, too.