09:00 - 26 February 2003

Anthony Gibson: 'It is the most natural and sustainable method of recycling'

Death is a sad but inescapable fact of farming life. Sheep especially have a quite remarkable propensity for dropping dead at a moment's notice, but any farming operation involving livestock, no matter how well ordered, will have its share of casualties.

And if you put all of the casualties, on all of our thousands of livestock farms together, it adds up to a lot of dead flesh. Some fairly rough and ready calculations, based on research work carried out elsewhere in the UK, suggest an annual South West casualty list of 100,000 cattle, 107,000 sheep, 129,000 lambs and 30,000 pigs. I make that around 20,000 tonnes. Up until now, the task of disposal has been shared between the knackers and the hunt kennels, with all the rest (barring what the foxes, badgers and crows take) buried on farm.

There is nothing whatever wrong with that, of course, or not at least from an environmental perspective. Burial is the most natural and sustainable method of recycling organic material; using the remains of one generation to enhance fertility for the next. The two main alternatives, incineration and rendering, are both hugely demanding in terms of energy consumed, greenhouse gases produced and landfill space required. So why on earth should it be that the EU is insisting that the burial of casualty stock should be banned as from May 1, to be replaced by an alternative which, whatever its final shape, can only be more expensive, more risky to human and animal health and infinitely less environmentally-friendly than the system it replaces? Leaving aside the admittedly tempting explanation that everything done in the name of Brussels must inevitably be mad, bad and anti-British, my conclusion is that the answer is actually nothing to do with any pollution risk, and everything to do with the great god traceability.

Under current legislation, farmers are required either to keep a record of casualties with sheep, or to report them to the British Cattle Movement Service if they are cattle. But that leaves the authorities without any independent proof of an animal's fate. They have to take the farmer's word for it that a casualty has been buried, and that it has not, as they must presumably suspect, been sold on the black market. But for better or for worse, on-farm burial is to be banned from May.

A further stay of execution is just possible, but as the UK is now the only EU member state which still permits the routine burial of farm animals, our negotiating position is not strong. So, assuming that we have to accept the inevitability of a burial ban, how are farmers to dispose of all of those hundreds of thousands of carcasses? There appear to be two options. The first would be to leave the market to sort it all out. Running a knacker's yard may not be everyone's preferred career choice, but I have no doubt that, in time, the laws of supply and demand would ensure that outlets were available for all but the most remote farmers, who would presumably have to give up keeping livestock. That being rather too drastic and messy a solution for even our present bunch of regulators to contemplate, we are left with the alternative, which is a government-backed, nationally-organised fallen stock collection service.

This would presumably involve setting up a network of licensed knackers and hunts and giving each the responsibility of collecting fallen stock from all of the farms within its allocated territory. The knackers and hunts would then deliver to designated rendering plants. Much the same sort of thing happens across much of the Continent. Indeed, in Brittany, farmers leave their dead stock in large wheelie-bins at the side of the road, for collection by the flesh man. This does not make a pretty sight, as I know from the gruesome photographs sent me by a concerned reader, and the implications for animal disease appear quite horrendous. But the alternative, of knackers' vehicles travelling from farmyard to farmyard to collect animals which may very well have been diseased, is almost equally alarming.

This, from a Government which is forever lecturing farmers on the subject of biosecurity. Anyway, such a collection service would not come cheap. My educated guess at the cost in the South West would be around £9 million a year. Of that, the Government would fund around £4 million, that being the cost of collecting and testing for BSE over 24-month-old cattle casualties from farms, which it is already covering and which it has said it will continue.

In terms of net cost to the farmer per carcass, I would be surprised if we are looking at much less than £80 for adult cattle, £50 for growing cattle, £15 for calves, £17 for ewes and £27 for sows. In many cases that will be more than the profit which the farmer would have earned had the animal lived. We will be arguing strongly for a more generous Government contribution. In several EU member states the authorities pick up 100 per cent of the bills.

Anthony Gibson is South West regional director of the NFU