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Muckspreader 19 April 2006

The tragic-farce which ensued when, on March 29, a decomposing dead swan was found floating in the harbour of Cellardyke, a little former fishing port on the coast of East Fife, gave us a chilling vision of the competence with which Defra would be likely to respond to any serious outbreak of bird flu. It took them over a week to identify the cause of death as what the media love to call the ‘deadly H5N1 strain’ of avian flu virus (and slightly longer to identify the swan itself as a migratory whooper rather than a resident mute). The Scottish Executive, acting on Defra’s advice, promptly went into overdrive, declaring nearly 1000 square miles of central Scotland as a ‘protection zone’ (although it naturally preferred to describe this as ‘2,500 square kilometres’). 175 poultry keepers within the zone were ordered to keep all their 3 million birds indoors, including 260,000 free range chickens, ducks and geese.

For several days suspense mounted as Defra checked out several more dead birds. The media had a field day in speculating how an epidemic of the ‘deadly H5N1 virus’ might soon be exploding across Britain. Only gradually did it transpire that the poor whooper was a solitary example, which had probably been washed, already dead, across the North Sea from Germany; and that, far from being the start of an epidemic, H5N1 had probably not yet reached Britain at all.

But already several alarming pointers had emerged from the official response. One was the speed with which those ever-trigger happy Defra officials had leaped to close off such a vast area of Scotland, even before the extent of the threat had been properly assessed. Ordering more than a quarter-of-a-million free range birds to be confined day and night in cramped dark sheds and henhouses is no joke. It soon gives rise to serious welfare problems, with frustrated birds pecking each other to death.

More serious still was the way this episode confirmed Defra’s basic approach to bird flu. In an uncanny echo of the 2001 foot and mouth disaster, its official mind is still firmly set against vaccination, which could have been used to create a ring of immunity round Cellardyke. Just as in 2001, we were treated to a stream of official disinformation about how vaccination doesn’t really work, because it simply masks the spread of the disease. All the evidence confirms that this is rubbish, and that vaccination is extremely effective, immunising most birds completely and reducing the infectivity of the rest almost to vanishing point.

Still at the forefront of Defra’s thinking is that obsession with killing on a colossal scale which, back to salmonella and beyond, has always been the ministry’s preferred answer to every animal disease problem. If bird flu was to become established in Britain, we could expect ministry vets soon to fan out across the land, ordering the slaughter of millions of birds. But already Defra’s chief vet Debby Reynolds has been quick to reassure us. ‘I should like you to know’, she tells us, ‘that I believe all killing for disease control should be done humanely in accordance with EU law’. It was perhaps unfortunate, however, that she went on to say that, for this, ‘the Welfare of Animals (Slaughter and Killing) Regulations 1995 provides a firm legal base’. We remember only too vividly how, under Maff’s orders in 2001, millions of healthy animals were knifed, shot or bludgeoned to death in flagrant contravention of those same regulations, without a single person ever being prosecuted.