Forest of Dean Memorial Service for the free-roaming sheep.This afternoon, in a cool wind, but fortunately without the threatened April showers, a motley assortment of people, children and a couple of dogs met on a small square of pasture in the heart of the Forest.
A short distance away is the place where 5000 free-roaming Forest sheep and lambs were slaughtered just over 1 year ago. I have been past this place few times since last Spring.
I am hoping that our little service today may lay the ghosts which have haunted me since that period of killing caused so much despair. Last year, the road was closed off to the public in this beautiful place where the innocents were brought in their thousands to meet their death. An act so awful and obscene for its wanton destruction of so much healthy life, many just weeks, days, hours old.
Some being born as their mother died at the slaughterman's hand and meeting the same fate.
How these animals met their fate has been rife with rumour and speculation and horrific tales have served to further the grief.
Today the woods are peaceful, the bluebells are spreading their violet carpet beneath the trees and their heady perfume scents the air, now silenced from the bleating calls of sheep and lambs beneath the fresh green canopy. If you did not know, you could not imagine the evil act that took place here.
5000 lives snuffed out, but not one animal tested for fmd.
Clinical signs? If there were, then most likely orf or foot-rot. Hardy forest sheep these, up to all sorts of antics, but tough as old boots. Eating brambles and the like and jumping up and down quarries and wild places. And after all, there were only 13 confirmed cases of fmd in the whole of Gloucestershire! So we gathered to remember these poor animals, but not just these lost souls. We wanted to remember all the other healthy animals that were slaughtered all over the country, and the tortured and caring people who lost their own lives as a result of the obscene policy which led to the slaughter.
Poppy Turpin-West, who is just 16 organised the whole event. Poppy and her family stood side by side with the Forest of Dean Action Group during the standoff with MAFF, protecting other smallholders and fearing for their own small group of livestock's safety.
Poppy got permission for the event and enlisted the help of local newspapers, local radio and The Western Daily Press to publicise the service. She wrote letters, gave interviews and spoke on the radio, and as a result of her efforts we had a wonderful service today conducted by one of the first female Forest priests, the Rev Patricia Pinkerton.
We gathered in a circle in the field around a small candle lit shrine. There were around 75 people including children and we enjoyed a most moving service of Remembrance. After a very poignant opening address, a poem was read which had been sent by Noel Edmunds and a lovely letter from Lady Apsley. Poems and tributes were read by different people, including poems by children caught up in the disaster.
Pat Innocent, one of the smallholdrers who fought off the attempt to slaughter her sheep spoke of her recollections of the events and of her gratitude to those who stood at her gate to prevent MAFF entering.
Bill Osborne spoke of his measures to protect his animals, including moving into a horse box and living there.
We remembered the plight of the farmers even now and the struggle to keep our rural way of life. We prayed for those who had suffered and the families which had been devastated by the way the disease was handled and we reminded ourselves that we are the custodians of the world around us and the animals therein. After our closing prayer, Val led us in singing 'We Shall Overcome'.
It was an occasion for meeting up with old friends and campaigners, such as Janet Bayley, several Forest of Dean Action Group members, friends from Oaklands Park (where FOD foot & mouth Action group was conceived ) and very much needed shortly afterwards, Mark Harper (Conservative candidate at last election) and active supporter of the Action Group and a wonderful lady called Anne who'se surname I've forgotten, who has been very active out Tewkesbury way I believe, together with people whom I didn't recognise, but who obviously share the same feelings as we do. All credit must go to Poppy and her wonderful effort. Her dad told me later that she had even had a letter from Prince Charles to say how much he approved of the service and how much he would have liked to attend. We hope to make this an annual event because we don't think people should forget what happened here and in this country in 2001.
Dear friends who couldn't make it, we missed you, but know that your thoughts were with us this afternoon. I know June would like me to thank you for all the messages she received and sends love to you all. June is going to be busy creating a website for Forest of Dean Action Group - I think our motto should be STILL A THORN IN THEIR SIDES.