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Janet's war on culling

Jan 20 2005

By Andrew Forgrave, Daily Post

 

In 2001 Janet Hughes waged a one-woman war against foot and mouth culls, losing in court to the government. Now her new book hopes to set the record straight. Andrew Forgrave, rural affairs editor, reports.

IF she achieved nothing else, Janet Hughes, the lone teacher who tried to halt the Welsh Assembly's foot-and-mouth (FMD) culls in 2001, sharply divided opinion.

On one side she was seen as a "bloody nuisance" who pestered vets and politicians, an animal sentimentalist who endangered government attempts to prevent the disease's spread.

For her supporters, however, she was the hero of the FMD resistance, a middle-aged mother from Mid Wales who - with child in tow - bravely took on the political establishment but who was thwarted by a pompous and self-motivated legal system.

Whatever people's views, she was certainly more than just a footnote of the 2001 outbreak. She may have lost her High Court quest for a judicial review, but her campaign wasn't without its successes: it may be a co-incidence, as she herself acknowledges, but the Assembly's firebreak culls on the Brecon Beacons, in the summer of 2001, ended abruptly just as she was losing the first round of her legal fight at London's High Court.

Did the Assembly take fright at the prospect of exposure in what she claims was the illicit slaughters of thousands of sheep, as she supposes?

According to Snowdon farmer Dafydd Morris, who accompanied her to the High Court - and to the subsequent appeal in Cardiff - Miss Hughes' actions may have saved tens of thousands more sheep across Mid and North Wales.

In her new book, The Killing Pens (Laurels Publications, £12), she cites an anonymous slaughterman, employed by the Assembly, who divulged subsequent plans to kill sheep "from the northern edge of the Brecon Beacons into Snowdonia". The Assembly has always denied such plans and said the culling stopped because no more sheep tested positive.

Her book is a catharsis, she says - a means of externalising her anger and setting the record straight. It is stuffed with florid invective against the "evil angels of death" and pulls no punches when singling out those she considers to be the main culprits: countryside minister Carwyn Jones, Wales chief vet Tony Edwards and UK chief vet Jim Scudamore.

Her fight began in April 2001, when she drove past a group of sheep. She said: "They had come right up to the hedge and started calling, almost as if they were crying. Matthew (her son) leaned out of the car window. I realised they were full of panic. The smell of smoke (from FMD pyres) was drifting over to them and they knew it was from their kindred. I made a promise to them that I would try to stop it all.

"A week or so later white trucks appeared on the verge near their field and I didn't see them again. I feared the worst. However, I tried to keep my promise to them."

During a trip to London, early in the crisis, she imagines she is being following by furtive government agents; and when, in January 2002, she lost her appeal for a judicial appeal, she suspects court officials deliberately arranged a fire drill to prevent uproar over the decision.

Throughout it all she believes there is a secret master plan to exterminate the entire British sheep industry: she cites a Hull docker who claimed livestock carcasses were being sealed in metal containers and dumped in the North Sea amid much secrecy.

The Killing Pens provides graphic details of the obstacles placed in the way of individuals attempting to take on officialdom. Time after time she is denied access to relevant documents, others simply "disappear". Yet her obsession with the case, which would see her lose £12,000 life savings and take her to the brink of bankruptcy, carries her through the difficult times, even when the odds seem insurmountable.

At one stage, when she suffers a stress-related illness, her doctor advised her to give up. "Individuals cannot beat the system," he admonished her.

Initially her campaign focused on farmers faced with losing their stock. She tried to convince them not to give permission for slaughter. Mostly she failed, but she was heartened to see the "Anglesey Six" smallholders succeed in their fight to keep their animals from the island's firebreak cull, which claimed 50,000 sheep.

By the time she took the decision to sue the Government, warnings over legal costs sailed over her head. FMD had been "discovered" at Libanus on the Brecon Beacons and she was determined to stop the slaughter at any cost.

The legal case related to the construction of large pens on mountain slopes supposedly to test the sheep. The farmers were informed that they would be able to shear and dose their sheep as normal. However not one sheep came out of the pens alive.

To back up her case, she needed support from a Brecon grazier who was opposed to the killing. Despite media appeals, none came forward. All the farmers were allowing the culling, which Janet attributed to Assembly "coercion and bribery".

Belatedly she saw the way - she would buy 10 sheep. Even then, it was a while before she found a farmer willing to sell. The cheque was never cashed and to this day she has never seen "her" sheep.

Nonetheless it gave her grounds to proceed against the Assembly. But by the time the case came to the High Court, Defra had "hijacked" proceedings and was taking the lead in defending its "cullingwithout-testing" strategy..

All along Janet claimed Carwyn Jones was dictating FMD policy in Wales, even quoting from a memo from First Minister Rhodri Morgan that alleges the Assembly had a "de facto" responsibly for disease containment in Wales, even though it was not a devolved issue.

She lost. "I felt as if a noose was being placed round my neck. The fate of the sheep had now been sealed and I felt as if I had totally failed them."

But she picked herself up. Some of Defra's evidence had been submitted minutes before the hearing and she had not had time to prepare her arguments. She decided to appeal, even though the killing mysteriously stopped.

At the appeal, in January 2002, Janet represented herself. Her arguments cut little ice with the judge who, despite pondering over some inconsistencies in the Assembly's case, ruled that Carwyn Jones had been lawfully entitled to order the culls.

Unbeknown to her, Defra had submitted an order for costs and interest payments had been silently accruing. She owed £17,000, and when the bailiffs came knocking, she became a cause celebré all over again.

Pleading poverty, she offered to pay £30 a week. As the debt would have taken 36 years to annul, Defra refused. When a public outcry ensued, Defra cut the demand to £4,000 - the amount it believed Janet had accrued in her Save Our Sheep fund, built up from public donations (it wasn't - there was more, which she has used to finance publication of her book).

Her final hope for a judicial review lay with the European Court of Human Rights, but her pleas there fell on stony ground too.

These days Janet, 49, works from home, schooling Matthew, now 14. Her husband Glyn has retired and they try not to think too much of the dark days of FMD.

Her supporters still believe she was the unsung heroine of the 2001 FMD outbreak. Alistair McConnachie, who publishes the monthly journal Sovereignty, wrote: "Farmers throughout Wales have a lot to thank this woman for, and it is a national scandal that her efforts are so little known or appreciated."

Janet is now campaigning to raise funds for a lasting Welsh memorial to the 2001 outbreak.

She says: "There were times when an overwhelming presence of sheep surrounded me, as if spiritually willing me to keep fighting.

"Was this madness? Perhaps. The case had obsessed me and many people had told me to let go of it and get on with my life. I couldn't. The sheep haunted me; they had been so cruelly killed. I hope this book gives them a voice. If it does, then I shall be content to let it go."

The Killing Pens is on sale at independent bookshops in North and Mid Wales. Copies can also be ordered by sending £12 plus £2p&p payable to Save Our Sheep Fund, to Laurels Cottage, Churchstoke, Montgomery, Powys, SY15 6SR.