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Muckspreader 17 October 2007 - Private Eye

When those who rule us go off their heads, it is often the tiny detail rather than the big picture which brings home just how far into the realms of lunacy they have travelled. So it is with Defra’s response to bluetongue, the latest plague to be inflicted on our farm animals. Having reduced much of our livestock industry to paralysis by declaring a vast tract of eastern England a ‘surveillance zone’, out of which it is illegal for animals to be moved, Defra then comes up with its recommendations as to how farmers can help prevent the disease from spreading. The bluetongue virus is not infectious from animal to animal but is carried by small insects such as midges. Defra’s solution therefore is that the farmers should deploy ‘large sticky nets to trap the potentially infected midges’. Furthermore, they should impose a curfew on all their animals, to ensure they are kept under cover when ‘midges are at their most active – usually the late afternoon and early evening’.

So here is Defra’s brilliant master plan: that every afternoon the farmer should round up all his animals and keep them safely tucked up indoors until the Midge Menace has receded. As for those ‘sticky nets’, as one bluntly-spoken Cornish dairy farmer Pat Bird delicately enquires, how are they going to be suspended – ‘from every bloody tree from Lincolnshire through Leicestershire down to Suffolk?’’ Or, since bluetongue is raging across large parts of continental Europe, is Defra suggesting that its nets should be hung all down the eastern coast of England, to prevent the midges gaining access to these shores?

The worst problem for farmers within the ‘150 kilometre survelliance zone (set up under EU rules) is that they can only move their animals within the zone. And here they are caught up by one of the government’s earlier blunders: the mass-closure of our slaughterhouses pushed through by John Gummer when he was agriculture minister in the 1990s. No part of the country lost more abattoirs than that now within the bluetongue surveillance zone, so that most of its farmers have long been forced to send their animals for slaughter to abattoirs on the other side of the country.

This is no longer possible. Normally some 8,000 cattle a week from within the zone are killed to provide supermarkets and butchers with beef. But the few remaining abattoirs within the zone can only process around 2,500 a week, leaving a fast-rising deficit of animals which can no longer be slaughtered. When a deputation of livestock auctioneers recently went to Defra to explain this problem, they were presented by the officials with a list of slaughterhouses inside the zone, many of which it turned out had been closed for years. So the supermarket shelves pile up with ever more imported meat, leaving farmers to pay for the upkeep of animals they can no longer sell.

With the prospect that these restrictions may remain in place at least until next summer, one remedy many have been crying out for is a programme of vaccination, of the kind used to keep bluetongue under control in countries outside the EU. But with their atavistic horror of vaccination, the Defra officials insist that the right vaccines are not yet available, Work on developing them was being carried out at Pirbright by Merial. But since the escape of FMD virus from Pirbright, all that research has been suspended until Defra gets its house in order. And for that, all evidence suggests, we may have to wait a very long time.


























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