On this morning's programme [30th November], Sue McGregor interviewed your science correspondent, Palab Ghosh, Tim Lang and Professor David King about the audit reports on the extraordinary blunder by the researchers who had apparently mixed up sheep and cattle brains.
As a result of this mistake we are given to believe that the government was ready to order the slaughter of all our sheep. The Animal Health Bill currently before Parliament was probably drawn up in such haste to empower the government to enforce this killing of our sheep without need to show that they had any infection: and to allow the killing to be carried out without the need to pay generous compulsory purchase money to the sheep owners. [It is clear that the government did not have the power to enforce the killing of healthy animals on the 'contiguous farms' and in the 'firebreak zones' during the outbreak of foot and mouth disease; so MAFF or DEFRA was obliged to pay high rates in order to entice farmers into accepting the killing of their animals. With the draconian powers sought in the Animal Health Bill, government will be able to virtually name their price - and then wrangle over 25% of it.]
Palab Ghosh questioned whether the astonishing mistake over the brains could be explained as "a one-off blunder at one Institute or the latest mistake in a system of government scientific advice that is not working". Tim Lang referred to a lot of 'one-offs' and a line of persistent mistakes.
Professor King agreed that the mistake seemed absolutely extraordinary and that Palab Ghosh's comments were quite right. He pointed to a need for scientists to be 'tensioned against each other' in order to create the necessary discipline for advances in their work. He went on to say that he himself had not been involved in these matters until relatively recently and would be directing the research not into the past but into the currently existing sheep flock.
Unfortunately Professor King's own performance does not inspire confidence in this sheep farmer from North Devon.
He has been a dogmatic proponent of the contiguous cull and the 3 Km firebreak cull. These were the inventions of a team of mathematicians, not veterinarians. The science underlying these policies has not been subject to 'peer review' [the process of 'tensioning' advocated by Professor King]: although it has been condemned by leading veterinary scientists with active experience of dealing with outbreaks of foot and mouth disease. Critical examination of the mathematical modelling on which the justification of these mass culls of healthy animals relies shows that the work is based on unsound data and insupportable assumptions: and that it cannot be shown to have been effective in controlling the outbreak. It was an insane and unsuccessful experiment. I attach two papers which analyse the work of the modelling teams and on which these comments are based.
It is appalling that an Animal Health Bill, apparently built on these unsound foundations, is being rushed through parliament [without waiting for the Inquiries to report]: and that it will facilitate more and worse mistakes in the future.
The same Bill provides for the Government to completely remove those sheep that are susceptible to scrapie -- "that could mean culling three quarters of the national flock as that is the proportion susceptible to it" [as Professor Malcolm Ferguson-Smith of Cambridge University puts it]. He goes on to say that: "We need to know if those sheep resistant to scrapie are resistant to the development of the disease or resistant to infection, as if it is the latter they could pass the disease on". The government's system of scientific advice does not know whether or not the sheep that are apparently resistant to scrapie are really resistant to it or just able to hide it. The professor also said that it had already been shown "that sheep resistant to scrapie are susceptible to BSE: so the culling policy as a BSE measure does not make any scientific sense at all."
The same concern about the science underlying the draconian proposals included in the Animal Health Bill was also raised by Lawrence Alderson, President of the Rare Breeds International and confirmed by Roger Green President of the RCVS at a meeting arranged by Mary Critchley of the website www.warmwell.com at the House of Commons on Thursday. They confirmed that it is not known whether the sheep which are apparently genetically resistant to scrapie are truly resistant or merely take longer to show symptoms of the disease. If the latter were to be the case, the bloodthirsty strategy to be implemented under the Bill might well be counter-productive. It would select types of sheep which hide the scrapie infection and carry it longer. Lawrence Alderson pointed out that as a result of the implementing of the strategy of removing the sheep that are susceptible to scrapie we would lose irreplaceable and valuable genetic material and probably exterminate several of our treasured Native Breeds. It would also, incidentally, devastate farms like ours and make our farms and countryside less interesting.
We have not seen any cases of scrapie on our own farm, during the 10 years we have farmed it. Neither have our neighbours seen any cases, over a far longer period. The State Veterinary Service tells me that they confirmed only 65 cases in Devon in the year 2000, and have only confirmed 37 cases to date this year. [The sheep population of Devon must be in the region of 1.5 m.] This disease has never in the 200 and more years it has been known, ever been found to cause harm to humans: and the measures propose are not known to be effective in eradicating it yet to possibly eradicate these 65 cases per year these mad scientists apparently advocate the pre-emptory killing of about 750,000 sheep in Devon alone. To put this in context, BBC Radio Devon reports that 400,000 animals have been killed on account of foot and mouth disease this year.
Where is the tensioning of scientist against scientist in all this? Where is common sense? How can any of us have any confidence whatever in the "system of government scientific advice" or Professor David King who currently heads it - or the government which sponsors it and relies on it?
Lawrence Wright Middle Campscott Farm Lee Ilfracombe Devon