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Booker Column Sunday Telegraph Aug 26 2007
Last Monday I was alerted by a concerned London University academic to a harrowing drama unfolding 1,500 miles away at the other end of Europe. For two weeks an English couple, Keith and Christine Balls, had been marooned behind a padlocked fence outside the Bulgarian border town of Svilengrad, with a herd of 65 young pedigree goats which they were taking to a customer in Cyprus. On their arrival at the Greek border they had been stopped by white-coated Bulgarian veterinary officials and told that, under EU foot-and-mouth rules following the escape of the virus from the Government laboratory site at Pirbright, they could go no further.
When I spoke to Mr and Mrs Balls their situation seemed desperate. They were fast running out of special food for the goats and gas for the cooker and fridge in their motorhome. Daily temperatures in the compound where they had been confined by the Bulgarian authorities were over 100 degrees. No one could tell them when, if ever, they might be allowed to proceed. Although trying to stay cheerful, they felt completely trapped.
The reason why they had been landed in this horrific plight was that Christine Balls is the export officer for the British Goat Society (her husband is an expert builder of canal boats). A Cypriot cheesemaker Pavlos Kyriakides needed the British goats, Anglo-Nubians and British Alpines, because their milk is rich in butterfat, much better for making haloumi cheese than that from local animals. Mr and Mrs Balls had collected the 65 kids from 14 farms in June, held them in isolation for a month, and left Dover on August 1.
Their original plan had been to travel by the shortest route through Italy, but this had been vetoed because of the lack of rest areas' approved under EU animal welfare rules. They had then planned to travel via Croatia and Serbia, but this was vetoed because these countries are not in the EU. The only permissible option was to travel through Romania and Bulgaria, to catch a ferry for Cyprus at Piraeus, near Athens.
They heard about the Pirbright foot-and-mouth outbreak while crossing the Hungary-Romania border, but did not think it could affect them since they had left the UK before the virus escaped. Only when they reached Svilengrad, planning to catch the ferry next day, were they told that Brussels had imposed an EU-wide ban on moving any animals from Britain. On instructions from Cyprus, the kids would have to be impounded. Tests for FMD carried out by Sofia University naturally proved negative, but the law was the law. It seemed the goats must remain locked away indefinitely.
Apart from their vital supplies running out, as the weeks went by other worries were mounting for Mr and Mrs Balls. Keith's customers were clamouring for work on their boats to be completed. Their young son Lewis, staying in Scotland, was due back home in Staffordshire for the start of his new school term. In Cyprus, Mr Kyriakides was trying to apply every kind of pressure to the local officials, but it seemed their hands were as much tied as everyone else's.
After hearing this disturbing tale, I contacted both Defra and the European Commission. Defra's response was that, because the goats were now the responsibility of another member-state, it was powerless to intervene, The initial response of the Commission offered little hope that anything could be done because the law had to be obeyed, but Brussels would look into the matter.
I noted that the European Commissioner in charge of animal health, Markos Kyprianou, is himself a Cypriot, who proclaims on his website that he wants the EU to lead the world in the humane treatment of animals'. On Thursday, just as we were having to contemplate the possibility that the perfectly healthy goats might have to be put down, I heard from Mrs Balls the scarcely believable news that the Cypriot authorities had the previous day relented. The kids were free to move. Later on Thursday morning Brussels followed suit by lifting its animal movement ban.
There had to be a final twist to the tale. If only the Cypriot authorities had been quicker paying a bill to their Bulgarian counterparts for such items as those FMD tests, Mr and Mrs Balls would have had time on Wednesday to race 600 miles down the motorway to catch Thursday's ferry, with the next boat not due until Monday, tomorrow. But, with luck, they will today at last be on the road. On Tuesday Mr Kyriakides may have his prized herd of British goats. the kids will again be frisking about on grass and Keith and Christine Balls will be free to return home to pick up the pieces of their life, after a nightmare to which four days ago they could see no end.
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