SILENT SPRING, SILENT SUMMER - SILENT AUTUMN?
A petrified lamb cowers by the side of the road shivering, isolated from its mother & the flock. Men are shouting across the moor, dogs are barking & I hear the scream of several quad bikes. At least two thousand ewes & their lambs are being gathered from Orton Scar.
They are to be slaughtered here today.
The slaughter men await their arrival, chatting in the morning sun & eating the delights found in their bait boxes. The collies work well, efficiently & enthusiastically. The Snowie de-tox lorries are in position, the cull lorries arrive in ones & two's & some of the ewes are already caged, unaware of their impending fate. This is 2001, August to be precise, the seventh month of the Foot & Mouth Crisis & the killing continues with no end in sight. These are Hefted flocks, sheep that have grazed these moors for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Irreplaceable stock &, unbelievably, healthy!
Sadly, over the past few months I have witnessed scenes similar to this many times. The plague, according to Professor King, the Government chief scientist, was to be over by June 7th. Conveniently the day of the general election! I did not believe this then & as I write (late August) we note the disease spreading unrelentingly in Cumbria & with new massive outbreaks in Northumberland. The response to the fresh outbreaks around Hexham is to kill all animals within a 400 square mile boundary! This mass killing is the same barbaric ineffective & unscientific policy that was being employed earlier this century to control FMD. It is interesting to note that it was only in the 1920`s that we employed mass slaughter as a FMD policy and previous to this we isolated animals and left well alone. In 1955 we had an outbreak in sheep in the Dufton area. These animals were isolated and monitored. They recovered within days and there were no subsequent problems! In 2001, we are able to successfully implant a man-made heart into a human being yet we cannot control & eradicate the Pan Asian Type O FMD virus. At least not by employing the current draconian methods, vaccination would bring the epidemic under control very quickly. So far we have killed an estimated 12 million animals & according to the Economist it has cost the country 20 Billion pounds and yet the disease still rolls on. In March we heard from the Chief Veterinary Surgeon, Jim Scudamore that "It is under control." How wrong he was! The evening after the mass slaughter of the Orton Scar sheep I drove back to the area. The sun had set, it was quite a cool evening. Nothing moved, nothing! The moor was empty. Randomly scattered wool from the fleeces were scattered around, the only signs left after thousands of years of breeding. It was very quiet. Not a sound. All that remained in evidence of these flocks were several notices written on old car tyres - "SLOW LAMBS". Not any more!
When the BBC announced that FMD had been discovered in pigs on a farm in Northumberland in late February, I turned to Helen & expressed the view that this was very, very serious. Farming had changed a lot since the last epidemic in 1967/8 with vast animal movements around the country & intensive farming methods the norm. We listened intently to every news report. Gradually the scale of the impending disaster unravelled. The virus had spread into Cumbria rapidly, the problem compounded by massive sheep movements from Longtown market. The County held its breath. Surely MAFF would respond quickly & effectively? Sadly not! Mr Brown, the Minister of Agriculture took a leisurely 3 days to stop all sheep movements, we were continually told the disease was under control & yet dozens of farms succumbed to the deadly virus every day. Thousands of dead animals lay rotting in our fields for many days. The chaos continued day after day. I continued to listen uneasily to every news report. In the evenings, Radio Cumbria held a "phone in" where listeners were able to express their views on the crisis. In particular one report haunts me to this day. A lady farmer called Ruth phoned in one evening. She farmed in the Duddon valley. Her cries of despair screamed from the radio as she recorded events in the valley that day. Blood from the thousands of Herdwick sheep slaughtered that day rolled down the fell through her yard. A passionate plea to save these rare sheep, heafed to the Lakeland fells for thousands of years. Many other tragic stories were told. Farmers awaking to the bellowing of "culled" animals the day after the slaughter as they dragged themselves helplessly across the yard. Reports of Sheepdogs being killed after the gather, lambs having their throats cut and many, many botched culls.
It was against this background of total mismanagement, with the Government seemingly unwilling to react swiftly to the virus and the obvious lies already emanating from those in "control" that I became uneasy. There was something amiss! How could I find out more? I turned to the Internet. I studied Web Sites such as Peter Kindersleigh`s Sheep Drove, Jane Barribals Farm Talking, and many more. I had now lost all my work, I am a freelance Outdoor Activities Instructor, and to further compound my frustration I had also been informed that the contract I was to be awarded with a local Outdoor Education Centre was not to be honoured, understandably, as there were currently no courses being run in the centre. Foot and Mouth was now gripping all areas of the rural community. Time, therefore was on my side! I spent the next few months studying every aspect of the disease. I had made contact with many other like minded individuals not only within the UK but around the world. Gradually a picture of horror, despair & incompetence evolved.
I needed to do more! But what? I had spoken several times on Radio Cumbria expressing my horror at the policy to control the disease.
I have written many letters to Government officials and others that remain to this day unanswered.
I attended an open meeting in Skipton. There the locals appeared to be far more outspoken and angry than here in Cumbria. I believe we were steam rollered and now traumatised. They invited me to speak. I did reluctantly. I spoke from the heart. They applauded and I was invited to a 2nd meeting. I appeared on Channel 4 in June and in early July my friend Elaine Commander and I decided it was about time we had our own open meeting here in Cumbria. The meeting was very well attended by around 400 people at Penrith Rugby Club. Dr Ruth Watkins, an expert virologist and sheep farmer spoke about vaccination, Dr Richard North unravelled the complex political component of the disease and Tom Lowther spoke passionately about the effects this tragedy had had on farming in the County.
We also launched Heart of Cumbria at the meeting and this created huge interest. The Hearts of Britain organisations were inspired by Sunday Times Journalist Jonathan Miller who told Jane Barribal of Farmtalking about Co-ordination Rurale in France and the name was inspired by the Heart of Devon campaign launched by the Western Daily Press. to represent everyone living, working or having an interest in rural affairs. Jane has evolved Heart of Britain and hopefully when the organisation is as large as the French equivalent, we too can control our own destinies! After all it was Lord Haskins who suggested we behave like the French. He may live to regret this!
As the weeks merge into months I continue to attempt to "do my bit". Another open meeting in Sedbergh, I attended the NFU meeting in Carlisle addressed by Ben Gill, NFU Chairman, and also attended the mass demonstration in London organised by David Hanley of Farmers for Action. I was privileged to be allowed to deliver the thousands of signatures collected and demanding a Public Enquiry directly to No 10 Downing Street. Heart of Cumbria is expanding rapidly and there are to be other mass demonstrations planned in the near future. In my spare time I attend work!
It is now late August and there is no end in sight to this tragedy. I have just been approached by Carlton Television to help them with a documentary on FMD. The crisis has dominated my life over the last 6 months. Work colleagues have told me I have changed drastically. But then hasn't everything? Will this County ever return to normality? I will keep on fighting to expose the scandal of FMD and will continue to help with Heart of Cumbria. In the years to come I feel I will be able to look back in the comfort that I tried to do my bit. It may have been a small effort but at least I tried. The following words keep me going:-
"For evil to triumph, all that is required is for good men to do nothing."
As I write we now have 870 infected premises in Cumbria, some 7,000 farms in the County have been partially or completely culled out and many, many farmers have committed suicide this year. The mornings are becoming colder and we are no closer to eradicating this disease than we were months ago. There is a massive flare up in Northumberland & there is great concern in Scotland as four farms are confirmed as being under surveillance. I believe there is only one way out of this mess and that is to vaccinate all live stock. This is a view held by many FMD experts. If we do not, the possibility of a silent autumn may now become a reality.