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Senseless slaughter

Written in 2001. The farmer and author, Emma Tennant, considered the government was to blame for a catastrophe, as " the agony goes on"

It is now five months since the Prime Minister announced that we were 'on the home straight' in the fight against foot-and-mouth disease. In fact, on that day in early May we were at the beginning of a terrible summer which will never be forgotten by the many thousands of families who earn their living, directly or indirectly, from the linked industries of farming and tourism.

Only now, in October, has there been a week without a new case of the plague. But even if we have, at last, reached the beginning of the end of the epidemic, the agony goes on for livestock farmers, who face a desperate winter.

The government has imposed a series of animal-movement restrictions which are paralysing the industry. At this time of year hill farmers have to sell their current crop of lambs and calves because, once the first frosts have felled the grass, there is nothing for them to eat. This year, hundreds of thousands of healthy animals, including both valuable breeding stock and much of next year's prime stock (e.g. meat supplies) will have to be killed and thrown away, at vast expense, because the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs refuses to introduce logic and common sense into its rules. But then logic and common sense have played no part in the government's handling of this catastrophic epidemic.

The first case of FMD was diagnosed on 21 February. On 6 March, by which time there had been 139 cases, the chief vet, Jim Scudamore, announced that the outbreak was under control. I was very surprised. I had met the disease before. I knew that the virus was incredibly infectious, and, as every schoolboy knows, epidemics are unpredictable.

In the 1960s, my husband worked for a British ranching company in northern Argentina. Animal husbandry standards were low compared with Britain, but the Argentine cattlemen knew what to do when 'Aftosa', as the disease is called in Spanish, swept across the border from Brazil or Paraguay. They rounded up their vast herds and vaccinated them. Even the relatively primitive vaccines available 40 years ago were effective enough to stop the disease spreading.

When we returned to England in 1968 we found the country in the last stages of an epidemic of our old enemy, FMD. As soon as it ended, a committee of inquiry, chaired by the late Duke of Northumberland, began work, and reported in 1969.

The Northumberland report, a slim volume of 200 pages, gave detailed recommendations for the handling of any future outbreaks. Among other wise and practical advice, it said that 'plans for the application of ring vaccination should be kept in constant readiness', in case a slaughter-only policy failed to contain the epidemic. Prevention being better than cure, the report recommended that imports of meat from countries where FMD is endemic should cease. None of these recommendations was followed.

So Britain should have been able to deal efficiently with the first outbreak of the 21st century. We had the blueprint and we had, at the Pirbright Animal Health Laboratory, a world-centre of excellence. The head of tropical diseases there, Dr Paul Kitching, would know just what to do. His advice had recently been sought by Taiwan, Japan and South Korea when they were faced by outbreaks of FMD.

But what on earth was happening? Our two farms were 20 miles from Longtown, the epicentre of the Cumbrian outbreak. For five agonising weeks the virus came up the valley towards us at the rate of three miles per week. Nobody seemed to be doing anything to stop it.

It is impossible to describe the mental torture caused by the threat of the plague. Each case is a bereavement, a human tragedy, and one for which the policymakers carry a responsibility. The fear of losing our life's work, the difficulty of farming under the burden of new restrictions administered by incompetent officials, and the feeling that the politicians were following the wrong advice, added up to a nightmare.

The atmosphere of secrecy made things much worse. The National Farmers' Union and Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food stifled open discussion of the best way forward. At one time farmers who lost their stock even had to sign the Official Secrets Act. With a few honourable exceptions, the press was supine - the dog that didn't bark. One of the main findings of the Phillips report into BSE, published only last year, was that public debate during such crises was essential and that dissenting advice should be heard. This recommendation was ignored.

Cumbria was devastated. From stricken friends we heard first-hand accounts of the horrors - of long delays between the vet's diagnosis and laboratory confirmation; of piles of rotting carcasses waiting to be burnt; of hundreds of rats moving in. David Maclean, MP for Penrith and The Border, begged the Prime Minister to send the army to help. For weeks nobody listened. When, at last, Brigadier Birtwistle and his men arrived, they did a heroic job. Even so, the backlog of carcasses and condemned animals took weeks to clear. And all the time the disease was spreading.

On 19 March, we wrote to Maff asking why vaccination was not being used. The reply from Maff's successor, Defra, arrived on 26 July - and a most patronising and inaccurate reply it was.

The figures were appalling: 952 cases by 2 April; 60 new cases a day at the peak. The politicians and their scientific advisers said that the epidemic was under control. We knew it was not.

As I listened to the daily diet of fibs, I thought of my favourite poet, George Herbert:

Cowards tell lies, and those that fear the rod;
The stormy working soul spits lies and froth.
Dare to be true. Nothing can need a lie.
A fault, which needs it most, grows two thereby.

The Prime Minster announced that he had taken personal charge of the fight against FMD - a responsibility which, as far as I know, he still carries. Both he and the chief scientist, Professor David King, favoured vaccination, but Downing Street was paralysed. 'Blair Fiddles While Cumbria Burns' said the placards on the motorway.

Early in April we lost our small farm four miles from the main holding. A few of the flock of 300 sheep had slightly raised temperatures and minor lesions on their feet. The vet wanted a second opinion, but decisions were now being taken in London. Maff ordered immediate slaughter. A week later blood tests showed that every sheep had been healthy.

Who had devised the extraordinary three-kilometre cull of healthy animals? We were not told, but it was enthusiastically endorsed by the Minister of Agriculture, Nick Brown, by Professor King, and by the team of Imperial College epidemiologists, headed by Professor Roy Anderson, who were calling the shots. None of them had any previous experience of FMD. The FMD specialists and the virologists had been sidelined. The cull policy was a bizarre experiment which had never been tried before; a strange way indeed of dealing with what became the worst epidemic the world had ever seen.

We talked to farming friends in France, Germany and Africa. They were appalled and astonished by what they heard, and saw on television. Had Britain, famed for its love of animals and veterinary expertise, gone mad? Why weren't we using vaccination to control the epidemic, as any other country would have done? Dutch acquaintances were horrified by the suicides, nervous breakdowns and untold human suffering. Such a dire social cost, they said, would never be tolerated in Holland. The whole world was looking on aghast.

The NFU and NFU Scotland did all they could to turn farmers against vaccination. Their propaganda said it didn't work, cost a fortune and would prolong the epidemic. Consumers, they said, would refuse to eat meat or milk from vaccinated animals. None of this was true. Because of their obsession with our FMD-free status, the NFU was prepared to hold the country to ransom to the tune of, so far, an estimated £20 billion - and all for the sake of exports worth £300 million per annum.

Many farmers were begging for vaccination. On 11 April, David Maclean polled his farmers by fax. Eighty per cent of the farmers and 95 per cent of the vets wanted 'vaccination to live' (i.e., without subsequent slaughter) as soon as possible. On 20 April the Cumberland News carried the headline 'Desperate Cumbria pleads with Blair to vaccinate now'.

It was too late. The Prime Minister, in what has been called a 'spineless dereliction of duty', had already cancelled the vaccination plan at the last moment. The NFU had twisted his arm, an act of supreme selfishness and stupidity which would not be forgiven by the politicians or the country at large.

When I realised what had happened I felt betrayed. I ached all over, as if I had been stabbed in the back. There was, of course, no explanation for this extraordinary turn of events. Instead, Nick Brown told the House of Commons that he had wanted to vaccinate cattle in Cumbria and Devon, but could not do so without the support of the farmers and others, which 'simply is not there'. Another lie, another twist of the knife.

The general election was postponed. Professor King, with the aid of a most wonderful graph, demonstrated that the number of cases would fall to zero by 7 June, Election Day. I watched this cynical display with a deep sense of foreboding.

But when Dr Kitching, one of the few heroes of this terrible saga, told Channel 4 News that the three-kilometre cull was based on flawed science, I believed his every word. He could afford to tell the truth - he was off to a new job in Canada. His former colleagues at Pirbright have now been gagged. So much for a government which preaches 'transparency' but practises the most bizarre secrecy.

At home we had survived two incubation periods. A miracle had happened: the virus, unpredictable as ever, had stopped just short of our farm, with its irreplaceable flock of hefted Cheviot sheep which had grazed the hill for 150 years. We began to eat and sleep properly for the first time in two months.

Others - thousands of others- were going through hell. In May the number of animals killed per case rose to an incredible 12,500. The epidemic continued to ravage Cumbria, the Yorkshire Dales and Wales.

The original Board of Agriculture was founded in 1793 because the then government was worried about the lack of information on animal diseases. Its successor, Maff, was abolished after the 2001 election, partly for the same reason. A political heavyweight, Mrs Margaret Beckett, presided over the new Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Agriculture was not mentioned.

Mrs Beckett began well. She visited a stricken farm, something neither her predecessor nor the Prime Minister had bothered to do. We all hoped that she would admit that the slaughter-only policy had failed and listen to some of the other experts.

There was, for instance, Dr Ruth Watkins, a retired consultant virologist who had managed epidemics of human diseases such as hepatitis during her career. She worked out detailed plans to contain FMD on the Brecon Beacons, where she now farms, using vaccination. She addressed the Welsh Assembly, but the politicians would not change their minds. They continued to implement a massive cull based on outdated science. The consequences are appalling.

New Labour loves to blame other people for its mistakes, and to kick a man when he is down. So we were not surprised by the campaign of smears, designed to blame farmers for the disease they dreaded. They were breaking the biosecurity rules, moving stock illegally, throwing infected tongues over the hedge or leaving a bucket of blood on the hill. Although the police had found no evidence to back up the craziest of these rumours, government ministers repeated them as if they were gospel truth.

After four months, the Prime Minister discovered that his own government had agreed to pay contractors to clean up farms, and had stopped the disinfecting programme, thus prolonging the return to normal. Leaked documents showed that some farmers had been paid more than £1 million in compensation. But Maff itself had devised the system of valuation, and nobody pointed out that a herd of valuable pedigree cattle - some of the very best in the world - could be worth tens of thousands of pounds each.

Nor were we surprised when Mr Blair refused to listen to the calls for a full public inquiry. He dithered and dithered, and then announced, from his holiday resort in Mexico, that there would be three separate inquiries covering different aspects of the catastrophe and the future of farming. None of them would be empowered to hear evidence on oath, or to compel reluctant witnesses to attend. The humiliation of the NFUs was complete. They were not represented at any of these inquiries.

Meanwhile nine other bodies, including the powerful National Audit Office and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, announced that they were setting up inquiries of their own. That makes 12 altogether. Expert witnesses will have a busy time over the next few years  as will lawyers, dealing with a mountain of litigation against the government. And there is every chance that the European Parliament, appalled by the mismanagement of the epidemic (for which the EU will have to pay 60 per cent of the cost), will hold an inquiry of its own.

I learnt about more than FMD during my sojourn in Argentina. I learnt about the misery of living in a corrupt country, where politicians cannot be trusted. And I learnt that in colloquial Spanish 'la palabra del Ingles' - the word of an Englishman - means "the truth". Do the cowboys on remote estancias still believe that? I wonder.