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Private Eye's Muckspreader

4 December 2005

Recent weeks have joined Britain’s best-loved racehorse, the most famous survivor of the foot-and-mouth crisis and our much loved farming minister, Margaret Beckett, better known to her many admirers as Rosa Klebb, in a delightful picture of modern Britain. On November 1, when 10,000 racegoers flocked to Exeter Racecourse to see the return to the turf of Best Mate, three times winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, they were horrified to witness the legendary 10-year old pulling up towards the race’s end and dying of a heart attack.

As the racing world went into mourning, the racecourse authorities announced that, as happened with Red Rum and other famous horses , Best Mate would be buried next to the winning post. But Devon trading standards officials sternly stepped in to point out that this would no longer be legal. Under the EC’s animal by-products regulation, 2002/1774, Best Mate would have to be incinerated and dumped in a landfill site. Brussels’ reasoning is that animals apart from domestic pets can no longer be buried in case they pass on mad cow disease: a disease which EU officials somehow imagine can infect horses.

Meanwhile in Cumbria a not dissimilar drama was unfolding around the fate of an almost exact contemporary of Best Mate. Mr Universe was a 10-year old prizewinning ram which had become the cherished companion of its owner Moira Linaker, a farmer and grandmother. In 1999, when Mrs Linaker lost her son, it was to Mr Universe she turned for comfort. In 2001, as she described in her book about the foot-and-mouth crisis, Behind Chained Gates, she barricaded herself and her sheep into her cottage to save them from slaughter. Last summer, when her ram fell mortally sick of throat cancer, Mrs Linaker slept beside him in the field until he died.

Her dearest wish was that he could then be cremated, so that his ashes could rest in an urn on her cottage mantelpiece. A Defra official assured her that, after the cremation, Mr Universe’s ashes would be returned to her. But when they never turned up, she rang Defra to ask what had happened. It was out of the question, they said. ‘All sheep carcases contain specified risk material’, and under the EC rules, they must be rendered down to powder, incinerated and then taken to a licensed landfill site.

The last word has now come from Mrs Beckett herself, in the House of Commons. Asked about the fate of Best Mate, Rosa intoned, with all the chilly moral superiority of which she is such a master, that ‘Regulation 1774/2002 bans burial as a disposal route for animal by-products’ and that ‘in our view a racehorse is clearly a working commercial animal and not a pet’. So the horse and the sheep must go to their anonymous graves: all just in case they infect the world with a disease neither of them can catch,