DAILY MAIL Saturday 1 September 2001

As the Army is called in again over foot and mouth a damming investigation shows how political arrogance and stupidity has turned an epidemic into something much worse


Saturday Investigation by Richard North

THE letter was stark:

'My regiment has got all sorts of battle honours for fighting Britain's enemies all over the world, but we're now engaged in heroic hand-to-hand combat with lambs. Their mothers have been shot but some were so frightened by the noise that they'd escaped all over the place.

'As we don't have any humane killers, the cleanest way of killing them is just to throw them in the river. We might be trained to kill enemy soldiers, but slitting the throat of a spring lamb, or beating its brains out with a blunt instrument, is just too much for some of the lads. 'Worst of all are the cows that have been shot but not finished off by the slaughtermen. Some are still crawling around, others are still clearly alive but unable to move.

'We had to beat them to death with lorry spanners or other heavy lumps of iron, If people really knew that was going on, I think there'd be a revolution.'

This letter, describing the utter barbarity of events on the front line of the war on foot and mouth, was posted on a website by a soldier serving with the Green Howards Regiment in the Worcester area. The soldier said he had been briefed that he would be 'clearing up' - which means burning or burying carcasses of animals humanely destroyed by trained vets and slaughtermen. 'But that has all turned out to be more spin and propaganda. What we're actually doing is mopping up,' the soldier went on, 'killing the animals they've left behind.'

SPIN and propaganda is, in fact, the tip of the iceberg where foot and mouth is concerned. Ever since the disease was first spotted at an Essex abattoir on February 19, I have been investigating and logging its catastrophic devel-opment - and in particular the grotesque manner in which it has been mishandled by the Government.

Now, for the first time, the true extent of the deceit and gross mismanagement of an affair which has needlessly cost this country billions of pounds and laid waste our countryside can be told.

In my new book, The Death Of British Agriculture, I explain why this is the last straw for our crippled fanning industry

During the course of my research I discovered how the ambitions of metropolitan politicians have been put before the lives of animals and livelihoods of country people, and how a policy of unprecedented slaughter and carnage has been bulldozed through in direct contravention of the best scientific advice available. it is the chilling story of one of the most bare-faced and disgraceful political cover-ups this century.

So incompetent has this Government been that I am certain the disease has moved on from the epidemic phase and is now endemic in this country; borne undetected in sheep on mountainsides and wild deer in forests. Moreover, I believe we face not months more of foot and mouth, but possibly years. If an epidemic is likened to a raging forest fire, the endemic phase of a disease is more akin to embers glowing in the undergrowth -little smoke and no flames, but bubbling away, ready to flare up whenever conditions are right.

In the light of this knowledge, consider the pattern of foot and mouth since Tony Blair recklessly claimed we were on the 'home straight' in late spring. Immediately afterwards there came a flare-up in Settle, Yorkshire, in May. This was followed by one in Cheshire. Then it was Cumbria. Not long afterwards, the Darlington area was hit. After that Devon and Somerset. And next, mass slaughter began in the Brecon Beacons in late June.

There have been similar sporadic outbreaks since then, and the latest this week in Northumberland, including three new cases yesterday which the Army are dealing with, should come as no surprise - because the pattern of foot and mouth's appearance in all these previously uninfected areas is entirely consistent with the endemic phase of the disease.

Whatever the new Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs might claim, foot and mouth is now deeply rooted in this country.

Suppressing individual flare-ups is like pushing down on a water bed. You press down in one area and it simply pops up in another.

To add to this difficulty, it is an indisputable fact that, without vaccination, the disease has never been controlled in any country once it has reached the extraordinary level it is now at in the UK.

Yet the Government is still hell-bent on its slaughter policy. Why on earth, one must ask, is it still, daily, adding dead animals to the estimated six million it has slaughtered already - When all scientific reason suggests it cannot control the disease in this way?

My interest in the outbreak stems from a sense of deja vu. As stories of the barbarity, arrogance and sheer nastiness of MAFF's killer squads flooded in at the height of the foot and mouth crisis, it brought back stinging memories of the salmonella-in-eggs-scare which lasted from 1989 to 1993 and infamously cost the then health minister Edwina Currie her job.

DURING that time, more than three and a half million laying hens were slaughtered, 6,000 businesses wrecked, and farmers were driven to the point of suicide.

I was an environmental health officer working for the egg industry, and watched each day as Ministry officials rode roughshod over welfare codes which would have led to prosecutions if flouted by egg producers. We saw vets turn up without the faintest idea of how to handle poultry, so when they dragged the birds from cages for slaughter, the animals were extremely distressed.

Ex-miners who had no training (it was just after many pits had closed) were employed to wring the necks of birds. In many was cases, their wrists tired after a while and they unwittingly threw the chickens into skips broken-necked but still alive.

Officials testing for salmonella itself hadn't a clue how to do it. There was cross-contamination between the samples they took from different flocks, and I discovered one Ministry laboratory so riddled with salmonella that virtually every sample tested there came out infected - even if it went in free of the bacterium.

The salmonella scare was based on bogus science, as an official Government report later grudgingly accepted, and led to the needless slaughter of millions of animals. Just like foot and mouth.

In fact, the parallels between the salmonella scare and foot and mouth are uncanny. And in both cases the Government's officials have pig-headedly refused to listen to their critics.

The reason for this extraordinary obstinacy in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence is that MAFF and the Government have driven themselves down a cul-de-sac from which they cannot escape without great political damage.

To change your mind such a barbaric policy of slaughter and admit you were wrong is virtually unthinkable in politics.

But why did they head down that cul-de-sac in the first would place? Again, the reason is political one - and nothing to do with good husbandry or safeguarding farming's future.

Where eggs were concerned, the Government wanted to appear the consumers' champion. At the time, farmers were intensely unpopular because they were seen as rich barley barons living off fat state subsidies. MAFF was unpopular too - its very existence under threat because it was seen to be in cahoots with the farmers. What better way of safeguarding its future than to transform itself into the self-righteous saviour of the nation from evil egg producers intent on poisoning babies and grannies?

With foot and mouth, it is different. A slaughter policy has for most of this century been the policy - and the most sensible one - to contain small-scale outbreaks quickly.

Such a policy only works, however, when dealing with what you might call a 'phase one' outbreak. It relies on early detection of the disease; identification of the affected animals; isolation, and slaughter.

But for whatever reason, this metropolitan-minded Government ignored all the experience of the last serious outbreak in 1967, and took far too long to react with sufficient resources to control the disease when it first knew about it.

I have uncovered evidence to show that the Government almost certainly knew that foot and mouth was in Britain well before it was 'officially' discovered in pigs at an Essex abattoir in February. But either because of complacency, mismanagement or a complete disregard for the countryside, it failed to act until it was too late.

A MONTH before the disease was 'discovered', in January, Irish farmers were warned to improve their 'biosecurity' to prevent foot and mouth being transmitted. In the same month, the EU Commission voted to test the potency of emergency vaccine stocks.

Weeks before the first reported outbreak, MAFF contacted timber merchants to check the availability of railway sleepers for funeral pyres.

A Ministry vet from Newcastle discovered symptoms of the disease in sheep which, he said, pre-dated the supposed start of foot and mouth in February.

There are other incidents too, but the sheer scale of the epidemic also suggests the disease had been around long before it was 'discovered' at the abattoir in Essex.

I am convinced that the Government knew of it but did nothing. Furthermore, it had no Plan B in case its isolation and slaughter policy didn't work, as proved to be the case. So by the time the Government officially confirmed its existence, the disease was almost certainly out of control.

The Government therefore moved from a state of denial to one of panic, and immediately MAFF's killing machine went into brutal overdrive.

By March, gruesome stories started emerging of bungled kills. Amateur slaughterers ran amok, blasting pigs with shotguns after they had been stampeded by cattle being put to death in their presence.

One man was filmed taking potshots at sheep in an open field, while others gunned down cows from the back of a fast-moving pick-up truck.

Despite such blundering, the Government's political interests, rather than those of the country - or, more particularly, the countryside - still dictated policy. There was even joy in the Labour camp because the crisis forced the cancellation of the Countryside March.

And a key recommendation from the inquest into the 1967 outbreak of foot and mouth -that the Army should be called upon at the earliest opportunity - was ignored because Tony Blair feared that such a dramatic measure would prevent him from calling a General Election in May.

The horrific result was that dead animals were left festering in fields for up to a week, enabling carrion feeders such as crows and foxes to perhaps spread the disease further.

As more and more horror stories of inhumane killings emerged, the services of skilled hunt slaughtermen were refused on grounds of political correctness. Likewise the use of expert shooters from gun clubs.

And when the outbreaks multiplied, MAFF's only answer was to kill more animals, faster - not just infected animals but all animals in three-kilometre zones around infected farms. What at that stage seemed the fantastic figure of a million sheep were earmarked to die - cows were saved at the last minute by a policy U-turn.

TONY Blair's decision to take personal charge did nothing to clarify matters. The Army was belatedly called in to help the policy of burning rather than burying carcasses was reversed, and serious doubts were raised about the wisdom of culling such staggering numbers of healthy livestock.

Nevertheless, the die was cast, and MAFF was in its stride. Fleets of bulldozers moved in to dig what was dubbed 'Animal Auschwitz', a massive pit capable of burying 500,000 animals in a disused airfield in Cumbria. Blair meanwhile announced a new date for the General Election, and the Government assured us the disease was under control. As if by magic, on May 17, there were no new cases of the disease.

Little matter that farmers reported there were cases of the disease. Or that, in the ten days leading up to that 'magic day', MAFF and its death squads had killed more than a quarter of a million animals on more than a thousand farms.

Everything by now was being kept from the public. Carcasses were even being transported under cover of darkness to keep them out of sight. 'Rural cleansing' was under way - and in the most underhand manner.

But there were setbacks. Two of MAFF's own senior scientists working on foot and mouth published a damning indictment of the policy in the Veterinary Record, saying that much of the killing had been unnecessary.

Anthony Gibson, the National Farmers Union's South West director, damned the cull as 'one of the most bloody, tragic and disgraceful misjudgments ever committed in the name of science'.

MAFF and the National Farmers' Union were nevertheless unshakeable in their opposition to vaccination, citing EU regulations and motivated by fears that Britain's farm exports would be banned for a year if we vaccinated.

Holland, where foot and mouth was reported soon after the British outbreak was confirmed, had vaccinated though, immediately and successfully And it's exporting again while we in Britain will not be doing so for months if not years.

Our arrogant refusal to give up the slaughter policy flies in the face of all manner of international experts on foot and mouth including probably the world's leading authority, Professor Fred Brown at the U.S. Institute for Animal Health.

The chilling fact is that, in order to save political face, this Government is presiding over the wanton destruction of our most treasured asset - the British countryside.

MAFF is not only radically altering the familiar appearance of hills, dales and meadows which have been shaped for centuries by the very animals it is killing. It is also tearing the heart out of the farming industry. This is a massacre from which we may never recover.

ADAPTED from The Death Of British Agriculture by Richard North, published by Duckworth on September27 at #14.99. ) Richard North 2001.