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2001, FMD: Death of an English County:
[WESTERN MORNING NEWS • SATURDAY, March 2001 (Headed; “Labour lacks any true understanding)]
Also published in 2001as ‘Death of an English County’, in Irish Farmer’s Journal and WWI.)
This is what I wrote at the time. Believe me I can never forget it.
Thursday 22nd of March, 2001:
From my farm on the northern edge of the Lake District fells I look over part of the worst affected area in Cumbria. My cows are away wintering on the edge of a hotspot, two neighbours stand to lose their in-lamb ewes and last years lambs because they are within three kilometres of an infected farm. Daily one hears of friends and acquaintances of many years standing becoming infected through no fault of their own. And from all quarters, reports of delays by the Ministry of Agriculture in getting to see suspected cases, and further delays in dealing with them.
As I write, Tony Blair is on his way to Carlisle, though whatever the outcome may be is anybody’s guess. Yesterday he cynically told Parliament that the numbers of animals being destroyed were only a proportion of those slaughtered every week for food. In other words, it wasn’t of any great significance. I wonder if he is aware of the total cost. Every fattening beast, sheep and pig will be paid for twice: once in compensation and later as an import, from goodness knows where, to replace the food we’ve lost. Every beef cow destroyed will be paid for nearly four times: once for her and for three years in imports of beef, as her progeny have to be replaced in the food chain. Each dairy cow destroyed produces twice her market value in milk (at farm-gate prices) each year, all to be replaced from elsewhere until the replacement is production. Then there are the breeding sheep and pigs.
Mr Blair and his ministers tell us that the countryside is open for business as usual. Neither can they postpone elections by more than a few weeks. What message does that sent to the rest of the world? The message has already been sent very clearly - here is a nation with a Government which doesn’t begin to understand and isn’t competent to deal with the situation.
Saturday 24th of March, 2001:
My situation has changed for the worse. Breakfast, and a very unhappy Joan (wife of the farmer who is over-wintering my in-calf cows from the hill) calls to say one of their milking cows has sores in her mouth and a high temperature. Ministry vet is called in. Tea-time, Joan calls again to say the vet is on the farm and F. M. D. is confirmed despite every possible precaution – children taken from school, Joan giving up her part-time job as a care assistant, disinfectant everywhere, yard closed to all visitors, all from the time of the first outbreak in the district three weeks ago - the ‘plague’ had visited. Rest of evening spent informing family, friends and neighbours. Auctioneer from Cockermouth tracked down, his night off, to carry out valuation of the cattle on Sunday.
Sunday 25th of March, 2001:
Cattle valued pending slaughter. The auctioneers are doing the best they can for us. The Ministry vet was good, kindly and efficient, one of those recently drafted in from overseas, in this case from the USA. He told Joan and Nick that in the States they realized two weeks ago that we had an epidemic on our hands and were shocked to hear the government saying that ‘everything was under control’.
When Nick told him that farmers had for some time been commenting on the number of new cases downwind of the huge funeral pyre, he tried to be non-committal, but ended up admitting that he also questioned the wisdom of burning.
Afternoon: went to see a neighbour, James, whose brothers cattle had been destroyed on Saturday. Wished I hadn’t. There are no adequate words to describe the horrors of the Solway plain, north of Wigton. I can only tell the tale as bluntly as I heard it. As James asked me to tell it and as others want it told.
In the village of Little Bampton all the livestock have now gone. On one farm, next door to James’ brother, slaughter was promised the day after diagnosis. An ‘A’ noticed was served on the farmer, which virtually confines him to his yard. Four days later the slaughter men arrive. Four days during which cattle in another yard down the road couldn’t be fed. After killing, the bodies were spread out and left. By the time they were collected some of the bodies had gassed up and exploded. Most were so distended they had become jammed against one another. Others exploded when they were picked up. The stench was overpowering, blood and filth were running from the yard down the road and getting into the drains.
A few miles away one farmer was going through the motions of looking after fattening sheep, knowing they are doomed. Right across the road on another farm was a heap of sheep carcasses awaiting disposal; crows commuting between the dead bodies and the feed troughs. Elsewhere lay a heap of sheep carcasses, torn and scattered by foxes before anyone got round to collecting them. One body was carried over a farm boundary.
The inevitable happened and the FMD reached James’ brother. The vet, another drafted in from overseas where he’d been working on FMD, was most outspoken. Burning infected carcasses spread the disease. No cook puts the meat in the oven and then lights the fire! The bodies are put on the pyres which are then lit. As the heat builds up, the bodies first give off water vapour, which carries the virus. Only when the fire is burning fiercely enough is the virus killed.
There are many more such tales to tell. They need telling, but I no longer have the stomach for it. They almost defy belief.
[(WMN version only.) There is a growing belief amongst Cumbrian farmers that our Government has deliberately allowed the present situation to get out of hand. Let’s face it. We’re a troublesome minority of people who speak out against our ‘elected leader’s’ wishes. We don’t vote labour. Agriculture doesn’t amount to much in the G.D.P. statistics. We are expendable.
Surely no Ministry, under a competent Minister, could ignore the advice of a county’s vets for three weeks, could watch such ineptitude, delay and bureaucratic tangle unless it was obeying orders.
Surely no Prime Minister could say, when presented with the facts, that Nick Brown ( Minister responsible) has done ‘a superb job’ unless he had given the order, or is so callous that he lacks all understanding.]
Friday 30th of March, 2001:
At the moment the army is supervising the digging of a mass grave on a disused airfield and the fires burn on. The feeling along this fellside now is not ‘if’ but ‘when’ we are going to be visited. The fires can be smelled on the wind…
[(WMN version only.) God Bless the lady from Devon with her clear voice, who called out during Blair’s flying visit to Exeter; “It’s all very well coming down here, but he wants to get himself down on to the farms…To get the stench of burning flesh in his hair and in his clothes and take that back to Westminster as a memento.”]