Muckspreader 27 August 2003 Private Eye
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In July 2001, just when the foot and mouth epidemic was all but over, the Welsh Assembly announced that as a precautionary measure it was going to slaughter tens of thousands of healthy sheep around the Brecon Beacons. This so enraged Janet Hughes, a Welsh environmental sciences teacher, that she bought ten sheep and took the Assembly to court. She wanted a ruling that the 'cull' was illegal, because the Animal Health Act 1981 only empowered the government to kill animals when either they were infected or had been directly exposed to infection. Realising that this could be a dangerous test case for the whole of the pre-emptive cull policy by which for months it had been killing millions of healthy animals for no reason, Defra joined the action to oppose Mrs Hughes's plea. The case reached the Court of Appeal in London where Lord Justice Latham upheld the Brecon slaughter and therefore Defra's illegal policy.

Paying lawyers to fight her case had cost Mrs Hughes all her life savings. But there was more to come. In January this year two bailiffs turned up at Mrs Hughes's home to claim £17,000 for Defra's legal costs, even though the officials working for Mrs Beckett (aka Rosa Klebb) had only joined the action of their own volition. When the bailiffs had listed everything they could see, including the car Mrs Hughes needed for her work, and a toy quad bike and jeep belonging to her 12-year old son Matthew, they said they would soon be returning to remove all these goods, in part-payment of Defra's bill. They justified stealing Matthew's toys on the grounds that a child's property belongs to its mother. Only when uproar broke out in the press, and lawyers pointed out that the bailiffs had no right to remove the toys, was Matthew's property struck from the list.

Mrs Hughes appealed to the High Court in London against the possession order, enclosing the £25 cheque required to register her appeal. After ringing the court repeatedly to ask what was happening, she was finally told that her appeal papers had not arrived. This was strange since her cheque had already been cashed. Eventually she had to pay £1.13 to pick up a package sent unstamped through the post. This turned out to be her appeal papers, returned by the High Court stamped 'application refused', without any further explanation (or indeed the courtesy of a postage stamp).

Various friends and sympathisers were meanwhile rallying to her support, contributing a further £4000 to the 'Save Our Sheep' appeal fund, and for months there appeared to be a stand-off while the bailiffs and Rosa's officials worked out what to do next. Last month came their final demand. If Mrs Hughes would send in all the £4000 in the appeal fund, they would not trouble her further. So Rosa's lawyers are £13,000 out of pocket, which is tragic. Matthew can keep his toys. For Janet a two-year nightmare is finally at an end. Of course the Defra officials were well aware that their pre-emptive cull policy was illegal (tests showed that, as elsewhere, not one of the tens of thousands of sheep killed on the Brecon Beacons was infected). But in 2002 they took the precaution of rushing through an Animal Health Act which now gives them powers to kill any animal they want, without having to give a reason. As a final joyous twist, under the new Act it will even in future be a criminal offence for people like Mrs Hughes to dare to challenge their actions.