Christopher Booker's notebook. "black sheep economy"

Sunday Telegraph  March 16th. 2001

Last week as it became clear that the Government has completely lost the
plot over the foot-and-mouth (FMD) catastrophe, the hidden story emerged as
to just why the disease spread with such unprecedented speed all over the
country,  and why the Government is risking mass-revolt by farmers against
its plan to kill up to 1 million healthy animals.

The key to why the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food thinks it
has no alternative but to lash out blindly with this vast and seemingly
irrational cull lies in a "black sheep economy" created by the peculiar
rules of the European Union's sheep subsidy system. To conform with a
deadline under these rules, hundreds of small consignments of  sheep were a
month ago being secretly dropped by dealers around the country to enable a
minority of farmers to make up the numbers for which they had claimed EU
quota. Because these movements were not recorded, when it turned out that
many of these sheep bought in Cumbria were infected MAFF could not track
them down. This is why in panic last week MAFF was contemplating a
mass-cull of up to 500,000 sheep, because officials thought this was the
only way of killing all the "black sheep" which had disappeared off the
radar. The story of this epidemic has unfolded through four stages. Step
one was the original infection of elderly sows in Northumbria, almost
certainly through imported meat. Under EU rules, meat can be legally
imported from many countries with FMD. One possibility is that the meat
came from the nearby Albermarle army barracks, forced to use cheap foreign
meat under EU public procurement rules. Step two, the first spread of the
infection, was the movement of pigs from Northumbria to Cheale's abattoir
in Essex, because all nearer abattoirs specialising in cull sows have been
shut down by the mass-closure of abattoirs under MAFF's over-zealous
interpretation of EU hygiene rules. Step three came when the infection was
passed to sheep being sold at Longtown market near Carlisle in Cumbria,
where large numbers were bought by a small group of big dealers who then
distributed them all over the country. Much of this trade in last year's
lambs or "hoggetts" is legitimate, because this is the time of year when
many are sold on for fattening before Easter, when new lambs normally come
on the market. But step four, the real spanner in the works, came with the
additional trade in "black sheep", the unofficial or "out of ring" buying
of ewes needed to top up holdings already claimed for under the EU's "ewe
premium" quota scheme. Because this year quota has been ludicrously cheap,
partly because MAFF over-estimated last year's British sheep census by 1
million, a small minority of dealers and farmers have been buying up quota
by the sackload, without having the sheep to justify it. There are of
course draconian penalties for claiming subsidies on sheep which don't
exist, and the deadline for this was February 4, the start of the so-called
"retention period",  after which MAFF inspectors may arrive to check
whether numbers match the quota claimed and paid for. This was why after
that date there was a rush to make deliveries of ewes all over the country,
to match up to the claimed quota, and by definition these movements were
not recorded. It is this which has given MAFF the impossible task of trying
to track down where all the deliveries were made, precisely because many of
the ewes have gone to farmers who will not admit they had to buy in
illicitly to meet the quota rules. This is why, in consultation with
Brussels,  they are now resorting to the unprecedented step of trying to
kill hundreds of thousands of uninfected animals in the desperate hope of
sweeping up all those "black sheep" which might be infected into the net.
If this was not such a catastrophe for the whole of British agriculture,
one might be tempted to re-write the old nursery rhyme, "Baa baa, black
sheep, we wonder where you are. You're bought to meet the quota rules, ha,
ha, ha". But it is more than just a disaster, it is an immense national
tragedy, which, by finally wiping out many of our remaining small livestock
farmers, may end up by changing the face of our countryside forever.
******************* The only one of 659 MPs who last week had the sense to
pull out from the House of Commons library the official report on the great
1967/8 foot-and-mouth outbreak was Owen Paterson, the member for North
Shropshire, the county which 33 years ago was the epidemic's epicentre. As
was confirmed in Friday's Daily Telegraph leader, based on his researches,
what a contrast that report provides to the shambles we are witnessing
today. The central recommendation of the 1969 report was that, to minimise
the spread of infection, animals should be shot as soon as signs of the
disease appear; then disposed of on the spot without delay, preferably by
burial in quicklime. Burning was particularly advised against as it
increases the risk of spreading the virus. The contrast to the current
chaos could not be more complete, where animals are often not killed for
several days until tests are completed,  and may then lie around for
several more days until they can be trucked through uninfected areas to
rendering plants in Cheshire or Devon. As Mr Paterson asks, "why are the
lessons of that 30-year old report being so recklessly ignored?" The reason
is that disposal of animal carcasses is now governed by a series of complex
waste disposal and groundwater rules originating from EU directives, which
make it much harder to bury corpses on the spot and in many cases
necessitate carrying them miles for disposal. Our agriculture ministers
Nick Brown and Elliott Morley, their hands tied by the new
legislation,  simply deny that this creates any risk of spreading
infection. If they study that meticulous1969 report they will see just what
a dreadful gamble they are having to take.