We will all be savaged by these dead sheep

By Boris Johnson
(Filed: 20/02/2003)

Sheep are either alive or dead. That is my father's conclusion. He has studied sheep for decades on an Exmoor hill farm, and on the question of animal husbandry, that is about as far as he is prepared to go. Some sheep snuff it at the slightest provocation. Other sheep seem almost indestructible.

Take the case of Blindie, a ram whose plight for many years would move me to tears of childish sentimentality. Shortly after Blindie was born, the birds pecked out his eyes, but we rescued him, bottle-fed him, and he recovered well enough to follow his mother around.

Owing to his disability, Blindie soon collided with a car, and was lamed. So we found a place for him at the bottom of the meadow, and my grandmother used to feed him. One day, alas, the horses came along and ate his ears, so Blindie was also deaf, as well as lame. Still he soldiered on, and achieved a very good age.

In fact, there seemed every prospect that he would break records for sheep longevity, had my grandfather not accidentally reversed over him one day in the Land Rover. Before that terrible moment he became, for me, a symbol of endurance, of ovine reluctance to throw in the sponge. He was the sheep equivalent of Job. If Blindie had been a minor TV celebrity, the Daily Mail would have done double-page heart-rending personality profiles about his "battle" with his afflictions.

Blindie had what it took; which is more than one can say for many other sheep. Lesser sheep seem to peg out for no reason at all, and in the oddest places, often on their backs. It is always oddly romantic to walk in the dusk, and see a patch of white on the field, and then to realise that it must be the remains of a sheep.

It is amazing how quickly this species is reunited with the ground that nurtured it. The crows wade in. The foxes do their stuff. Soon there is nothing left but a litter of bones on the grass, tufts of wool, and a green-toothed skull which you can take home for the entertainment of children.

That is how things have long been done in the combes and brakes of Exmoor, though, like so many other perfectly natural things, this custom is illegal. If the ramblers come across a sheep corpse on your land, they can turn you in. You can be fined. So most farmers have long since been in the habit of burning or burying their dead sheep.

Now, unbelievably, even that punctilious practice is about to be banned. Under the EU Animal By-products regulation of April 30, 2003, you will not be allowed to employ the foxes to eat the sheep; you will not be allowed to bury the beast on your own land. You will have to pay anything between #5 and #10 to have the cadaver removed by an official dead sheep remover.

And why? You might guess that it was because Labour wants to ban hunting, and many farmers rely on the hunt to remove fallen stock. But no: the answer is that the EU's Scientific Veterinary Committee (the gentlemen who banned British beef, and almost wiped out an industry, when it was perfectly safe to eat) have decided that there is some risk to health.

However they calculate that risk, it must be vanishingly small next to the risk of contagion from an itinerant van, proceeding from farm to farm with a cargo of corpses, many of them diseased. You will see how demented this new ruling is when you consider that the Law of England and Wales still permits you to bury your relatives, whole and entire, at the bottom of the garden. Why on earth can't you do the same thing with sheep?

Elliot Morley has apparently put up the most tapioca-like resistance to this proposal. He should realise what farmers are up against. The other day I was bumping in a farmer's van over a field in the Chilterns, when I noticed a magnificently engraved document on the dashboard. It was like some laissez-passer from the Holy Roman Emperor, with many scrolled and decorated pages.

It turned out that it was one of the new cattle passports, much swankier affairs, by the way, than the flimsy burgundy jobs they give human beings. Indeed, the farmer, David Passmore, said it was easier and less bureaucratic for him to travel on a plane to Brussels, than it was to move a cow to a neighbouring farm.

By July, the same farmyard frontier controls will apply to sheep, with farmers on either side of the border being asked to fill in new forms, noting each sheep's 14-digit ID number.

And then, of course, there is the forthcoming delight of the "equine passport", under whose provisions you will have to pay #200 just to make sure your horse's papers are in order, even if you never take it anywhere. No wonder farmers are leaving the profession in such numbers, or that foreign imports are taking so large a share of our supermarket shelves. And don't think this is just a problem for farmers. Don't think you will escape.

We are all going to be financially savaged by these dead sheep. Look at the huge increases in council tax coming in over the next couple of months - often more than 16 per cent! They are rising to pay for the massive expansion in the number of public sector officials; and those jobs - or non-jobs - have been generated by the huge increase in regulation. Attentive readers may remember a sermon I preached here on the Windows and Doors regulation, and how it would require a council-appointed Window Inspector. The same point applies.

Someone will need to be in charge of picking up those dead sheep; that means the council; and that means the taxpayer. We live in a world so mad that a sheep cannot crawl off and die in a bog, or stuck in a fence, without you or me having to stump up.