By Hilary Peters
1THE EMP GLAND
I sat on the gate with Frank, my twin.
We were eight
Frank said: I hate.
I hate the way you go all goo when one chick dies.
They’re there to die.
They’re there for us to eat.
The mother hen scratched the sheep-cropped grass.
Her chicks followed her every move, learning, relating, growing.
We ate them - yes. That didn’t stop me loving to see them grow strong and independent.
Look at them!
Ugh! You’re crying. You’re a freak.
Am I a freak or you? You’ve got no empathy at all. Your emp gland got left out.
You’ve got it. You! Some mix-up in the womb left you with two emp glands and me with none.
You’re not fit to be a farmer!
We’re older now.
I run the farm.
The hens still scratch among the sheep. The goats join in.
Frank owns the farms all round and buys up more and more small farms and prospers, selling the houses, ranching the land, and crowing proudly on the NFU.
I have enough to keep my family.
Our produce feeds us all. Our animals range free, supported by our land. We love them, care for them, and eat them too from time to time. And when we kill a pig our neighbours all eat pork.
Frank kills a hundred pigs a week and his employees run his pig units.
We make a goat cheese, sell it once a week.
Subsistence farming, Frank calls it.
I married Luke, the vicar.
He moved out of the vicarage after his wife left him.
She left because he let illegal immigrants stay in the house.
She didn’t like the prayer mats in the hall.
She left him with two small children and soon we had two more.
So, with us at the farm and our neighbours at the vicarage, we have plenty of labour to lavish on our animals and crops.
Our goats flourish; our salad leaves gleam.
Our children wear Islamic headscarves to the village school.
We spin and weave and work the woods as well.
Idyllic? Yes it was. Productive too. Until the plague arrived.
We saw it on the news
Animals killed in piles, burnt up in pyres.
KEEP OUT on all the fields.
It’s lambing time, with new life everywhere.
Must stamp it out, this dreadful dread disease
Why? It’s not dangerous. Some weaker creatures die, but most recover. Human risk is nill.
Must stamp it out to save the export trade.
You don’t understand. Farming’s an industry
Our golden goats eat the rich crop of nettles, grasses, scrub and give us milk. They feed the land. This is an endless self-sustaining gift, as far from industry as red from green.
Computer models. Infectivity
Expert in epidemiology.
Don’t try to blind me with technography.
We have a neighbour - Zal - who is breeding her own flock of sheep for hand spinning. They are all colours and exceptionally beautiful. Decades of work has gone into them and she loves them. Her sheep have names and come when she calls.
Now Zal is under threat.
The plague creeps closer
We can smell the pyres now and see the smoke.
Luke has seen culls: the men in white, the heavy machinery, the farmers’ dread, the piles of dead animals.
I don’t go out at all for fear of bringing back infection. Only I have contact with our animals. The others walk through the vicarage garden and the churchyard, disinfect themselves at the car.
Restrictions multiply daily.
Zal is now not allowed to move her sheep and they are lambing.
This is excruciating for her.
Infection, is quite close, but not her greatest worry.
Her sheep are hardy, with good immune systems.
Her field, she says, is full of happy mothers with their lambs.
Her greatest worry is the contiguous cull.
They’re killing every animal on farms next to infected farms. No one knows how much of the infection is genuine. They kill first and then don’t ask questions.
To destroy her flock, all they need is a suspected case near her.
We have decided to defy the law.
We don’t see why our animals should die for other people’s farming methods.
Our fields have never known the alien power of scientific aid to kill the weeds, control the insects or increase their yield. They feed us, we manure them and our animals are suited to their home. Their health is good. It would be a hard job to infect them.
We have a forest near, where sheep graze wild in clearings, making green lawns beneath the trees. It’s called The Chase.
Locals have grazing rites, some with hundreds of sheep, some with just a few.
We’ve heard there’s an infected sheep.
Big graziers are queuing up to sacrifice their flocks.
They get inflated prices if they do.
Small farmers round the edge are terrified and appalled.
The smoke hangs thick, and with it, the rumour that the smoke itself carries the disease.
The phone rings constantly and almost every call is a desperate farmer.
Luke now does nothing but hear their agony:
A shepherd with a flock that’s his whole life, a woman barricaded in her home with all her sheep crammed in the living room.
(That must be a bit smelly.
I don’t suppose the sheep like it much either)
People have hidden sheep. New secrets are added all the time to the great well of Luke’s confidential material.
Our kitchen is a bunker in a war-zone.
Frank comes clumping in.
Have you disinfected yourself?
He smiles his empless smile.
You don’t believe in that? Bio-security’s a myth. You might as well cross your fingers.
What will stop it then? What can we do? Is all your science powerless?
If I’m culled, I’ll be a multi-millionnaire
You wouldn’t! No I don’t believe that even you could want to be culled. However many millions do you want?
Oh come on, Cheska, when will you grow up? I’ll buy you anything you want.
I want a land where humans co-operate with animals and people understand we’re all connected. Buy me that.
He walked out without a word, leaving his mud on my floor.
Frank was culled.
The shots went on all day. The smoke is everywhere.
So now they want to kill our animals.
We’re holding out.
I’ve padlocked all our gates.
Luke, filled with outraged zeal, incites rebellion in his law-abiding flock.
They’re new to it.
Farmers are used to doing what they’re told.
Poor Zal, wobbly with lack of sleep, told Luke she’d always thought the law was on her side.
Not any more.
They phone her in the middle of the night to tell her she’s putting her neighbours at risk by keeping her sheep.
They give her time to get back to sleep, then ring again to offer her large sums of money.
Over my dead body, she says.
She’s not the only one.
Neighbours have had officials force their way in to check their animals, straight from infected farms.
We’re now an action group.
We won’t admit vets from infected farms. We check their science, turn up to protect those farmers who protest. They retreat, threatening to come back strengthened by the Law.
Luke has a contact on the slaughter team. He says they plan to kill every sheep in this area. Hotels are booked. The army’s moving in.
This can’t be true?
Tell me this story at any other time and I’d say you’re raving.
No one would believe such things could happen.
Not in England.
But now, our phone is tapped, our emails monitored.
Luke thinks up jokes to please the listeners.
They’re suing Colonel Rodley for assault.
They broke into his barn and shot his sheep.
And still the killing and the fires go on.
They’re wiping out small farms.
They want to rid the British Isles of sheep.
Farmer Cheesefoot from across the Chase, roars in our kitchen;
LAW! They used the LAAW against us. Sheepdip! Forced us to sell them our wool for nothing. LAAAW! I’ll give em LAW!
He hurtled off to take out an injunction to stop them killing sheep on the Chase. They didn’t let him have the injunction, but they stopped.
Our nine year old daughter, Collie, has locked herself in our bathroom with our goat, Nanette and her twin kids. Our bath is now a manger, the bidet a water trough; the shower a deep-litter bed. Collie sits on the loo reading Norse sagas. The children must have set all this up while I was milking and Luke was visiting besieged farmers . It’s lucky we have a downstairs loo. Far from objecting, Luke tells her “I admire you. I have other parishioners like you. When this is over, I’ll tell you who they are.” Even Gideon - the hairdo - has come out from behind his earphones to support her. I met him on the stairs with a full hay net
Luke has arranged a public meeting. The ministry vet and a local politician will answer questions from farmers.
Zal is still holding out. Her sheep are all still healthy
One farmer rings in great distress to say they’ve offered to spare his cattle if he will sacrifice his sheep.
Is this disease control?
Another has been told: if you tell the press we’ll see to it you never farm again.
Our staircase has a landing half way up, where Luke now sits glued to his mobile, listening to grief.
AT THE GATE
They’re here to kill our animals.
We won’t give in.
They come with huge machines, yellow as victory, a ministry vet at their head. He talks science to Luke (who is a scientist and deeply shocked at this travesty). Luke, wearing his dog collar like a breastplate, does not back down. The vet demands to see me.
I won’t to let him in.
I’m touched to see how many farmers and protesters have turned up to support us.
And they’ve won!
Swearing to return with an injunction, the messenger withdraws, herding the slaughter team.
Frank goes straight round to Sal.
His tears, when he returned, were frightening.
The army and the slaughter team had got there first.
A teenage soldier met him at the gate, white as his crisply laundered handkerchief:
Over to you Reverend.
Frank found Zal dead, in the entrance to her field.
Inside, her precious ewes lay rigid, each with their new-born lambs.
Zal killed them all with lethal injections.
No blood at all.
She made quite sure they all died painlessly
Then killed herself.
My first reaction: Don’t tell Collie.
I must. She deserves the truth.
He was right of course.
Now Collie has moved her bedding into the bathroom.
And Luke sits on the landing, sucking on his empty pipe and saying mmm to his mobile, adding new horrors to the cavernous pit of silence behind the dog-collar.
8. THE MEETING
The Ministry vet was moved by our plight, or swayed by Luke’s persuasive oratory
He agreed to stop the killing for 48 hours. During that time we have to change the policy.
It’s not so simple. Huge commercial interests are at stake.
But huge commercial interests aren’t the point.
Luke won this round.
We were offered blood tests before our animals were killed.
Our animals are all healthy, of course.
The news of other areas is bad. The army is called in; whole areas sealed off and culled before protest can start.
Farmers are not allowed to sheer their sheep or move their sheep. The weather is now hot. The infamous “welfare to slaughter” claims more lives than the cull.
A politician read out figures on the news. “Welfare to slaughter”. She had no more idea what she was talking about than a child reciting figures of civilians killed in wars.
It doesn’t touch them. Why don’t people mind?
It’s now illegal to use the homeopathic remedy for the plague.
Mr. Cheesefoot, hero of the Chase, has heard they’re going to change the law. They’ll be able to kill your animals whenever they want. You’ll be a criminal fro protecting them. His lion’s roar is choked with bitterness.
Helicopters fly over us twice a day and in the post come endless forms: movement of animals, registration of animals, every sort of inspection, subsidies…So many, complicated and obscure, farmers are giving up.
A friend of Luke’s has brought us a testing kit. In theory, it’s simple. In practice, it isn’t easy getting blood out of a sheep, but good experience for the children, who no longer go to school. They might meet children from infected farms
They spend the time outwitting government forms and teaching each other their first language, so all will be bilingual in English and Arabic.
10. THE FUTURE OF FARMING
Luke is fitting a new carpet in the bathroom.
The vets, the army, the enormous machinery have all moved on to turn some other paradise into a war zone.
Nanette’s mild enquiring gaze homes in on a patch of nettles. Her kids rear, hop, and butt each other off the mounting block.
Luke plans a farmers’ market in the church
And round us, farmers are restocking. Already, there seem to be more animals than before. But these animals are abused migrants, passing through. They have no roots in our fields, no purpose except to be eaten.
Frank is back from South America.
Leaning on the gate - descendent of that gate we sat on years ago:
So the old ways go on.
They’re not old or new. They’re right.
They’re comforting. It gives me a warm glow to see traditional farming still goes on. I’m glad I sacrificed my animals so you could cherish yours.
I formed a firebreak round you. Didn’t you realise what I was doing?
You were making a fortune. ANOTHER fortune. How can you, dare you, be so devious?
I’m practising for politics.
I’ll keep you here as a front farm, servicing a niche market, until next time.
You won’t get away with protesting next time. You’ll be in prison and your animals will be dead.