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(Updated 4/4/01)

The year Spring died

by Nick Mays


MARCH IS usually the time of year when the countryside is bursting with life. Daffodils burst into bloom; their trumpet-shaped heads like heralds announcing the onset of warmer weather. Newborn lambs gambol in the fields, living affirmation of the ongoing cycle of rebirth and the return of life to the land after winter. Herds of cows graze contentedly on the fresh grass. Springtime is a time for the celebration of life.


But March 2001 is different. This year, the fields are empty of newborn lambs, the cattle are confined to barns. Or, as is the case in over 600 farms throughout the UK, the fields are piled high with rotting carcasses of sheep, cows and pigs, shot dead by MAFF officials because they had come into contact with the insidious Foot and Mouth virus. In other locations, palls of choking, acrid smoke hang over the fields as vast funeral pyres of carcasses are burnt in a futile attempt to eradicate the disease.


Even the weather has turned cold and grey as though in mourning. The daffodils have been flattened into the ground by the heavy machinery needed to pile the carcasses on the pyres. This year, there is no life to be seen in the fields. 2001 will be remembered as the year Spring died.


Foot and Mouth disease continues to decimate Britain’s farming stock, showing no signs of abating. With over 600 confirmed cases at the time of writing, it seems that there is no way of stopping the spread of the airborne virus. The disease has now reached the Irish Republic, with a handful of confirmed cases in the Netherlands and Germany.


Agriculture Minister Nick Brown lost all credibility amongst the beleaguered farming community by recently announcing that the outbreak was “under control”, while Prime Minister Tony Blair was heckled and booed as he made a whistle-stop tour of Cumbria, the country’s worst affected county.


MAFF has now authorised the destruction of healthy animals on neighbouring farms to where a confirmed outbreak occurred - irrespective of whether they have tested negative for the disease or not. Stung by repeated criticism over the Government’s handling of the crisis, the Prime Minister has at last ordered the mobilisation of the army to take charge of the disposal of over 500,000 animal corpses in FMD stricken areas.


Meanwhile, the crisis caused by the disease has had a knock-on effect in other areas of life, including animal shows. Horse racing was initially curtailed for seven days, although most race meetings are now proceeding as normal, but with each racecourse observing hygiene precautions in the form of disinfectant ‘dips’ for feet and vehicle wheels. Greyhound racing, too, is continuing as normal.


However, many dog and cat shows have been cancelled or postponed, especially those held at agricultural halls or in rural areas. Even the prestigious Crufts dog show at the NEC, Birmingham did not escape unscathed, and this year’s show was postponed from its early March dates to the end of May.


Cancelled


Many small livestock shows, such as those for Fancy Rats and Hamsters have also been cancelled for March and April. Although the disease only affects ungulates - animals with cloven hooves - other animals (including humans) can carry the disease on their feet and spread it around in this way.


Two weeks ago, John Webb, a spokesman for MAFF told OUR DOGS: “MAFF does not have an official position on the staging of animal shows. We give advice if it is sought, so if a show were to be held in a field near an affected area, we would advise against this. If the show is to be held in a hall in a town, then there’s no problem.”
Fears that cats and dogs on farms might be culled along with sheep, cows and pigs are, however, unfounded, according to MAFF. Paula Harrington from MAFF’s London press office told OUR DOGS last week: “Cats and dogs are unable to contract the disease, although it is possible for them to spread it on their feet if they walk around in an infected area. We therefore are asking that all dogs are kept indoors and that cats are restrained as best as possible.”


Asked whether feral populations of cats would have to be culled to prevent the possible spread of FMD, Ms Harrington replied: “Our research has shown that there is no evidence to suggest that wild animals play any part in spreading the disease, therefore we have no policy towards the movement of wildlife.”


Her words may bring ironic laughter from farmers whose dead animals have lain in rotting piles for weeks, awaiting incineration, whilst crows and foxes have picked at the remains and may have helped spread the disease further.
Even the policy of burning the bodies is now shown to be pointless - the hot air from the fire lifts the living virus before the bodies can be consumed and lets it spread further afield.


The Government and MAFF have now accepted the advice of experts and the farmers, as well as pressure from Britain’s EU partners and have agreed to begin a concerted campaign of vaccinating healthy animals in a further attempt to curtail the spread of the disease. Rather than culling healthy animals on farms in affected areas - thus leaving more bodies to rot - MAFF vets will now vaccinate animals against the disease as a ‘firebreak’ precaution.
Earlier this week, at MAFF’s headquarters in London, Junior Agriculture Minister Baroness Hayman said the Government was “acting urgently” to assess the possible implications of introducing the three-kilometre culls as a nationwide policy.


The Government was also planning to consult about a possible ban on pigswill, which is suspected of fostering the spread of the disease, as well as a change in the law on moving and selling sheep, she said.


Baroness Hayman said the slaughters would continue in the three-kilometre zones around infected farms in Cumbria and in Dumfries and Galloway, and on farms which neighboured infected sites throughout Britain, as well as on dangerous contact sites where there was thought to be a high risk of disease.


It remained crucial to reduce the wait between the first report of disease and the slaughter to less than 24 hours, the Minister said.


Cover-up?

The first two reported cases of Foot and Mouth Disease were confirmed by MAFF on February 19 at an abattoir near Brentwood, Essex, as well as in a bull on a neighbouring farm. Two days later, two further outbreaks in Essex were confirmed.


On February 23, an outbreak was confirmed at a farm near Heddon-in-the-Wall near Newcastle Upon Tyne. The farmer had supplied pigs to the Essex abattoir the previous Friday. MAFF believes the infection may have been present on the farm for two or three weeks beforehand, but had not been reported by the farmer. If this is the case, then the farmer faces a possible prison sentence for failing to notify the authorities. By the end of February, MAFF was working on the assumption that this farm was the likely source of the UK outbreaks.


Although the Foot and Mouth virus is airborne, one of the reasons cited for its rapid spread throughout the country is the policy, established by the previous Government, of closing down small, local abattoirs and favouring the use of a few large abattoirs at diverse locations. This necessitated the transportation of animals for slaughter by road over long distances, which explains why pigs from the Heddon-on-the-Wall farm were being transported to Essex for slaughter - a distance of over 250 miles.


Farmers say that if the local abattoirs had been maintained, then the disease would have been contained in a much smaller area, and the risk of widespread infection would have been greatly curtailed.


Contingency


However, there is a rumour, which is rapidly gaining credence, that MAFF may have identified an FMD outbreak two months before the first ‘official’ case was announced in Heddon-on-the-Wall.


The Army has admitted that it was approached by the Government over contingency plans to deal with a FMD outbreak three days before the outbreak was officially announced in the UK.


A Ministry of Defence spokesman confirmed that MAFF had contacted the Army headquarters at Copthorne Barracks, Shrewsbury, on February 16. Plans about how to deal with FMD, including mass slaughter and sealing off farmland, were discussed at the meeting 72 hours before the first outbreak was confirmed at Cheale Meats abattoir, Essex, on February 19th.


The MoD spokesman said that such meetings were held every six months as a matter of routine, mainly to maintain resources. However, he could not confirm the dates of any previous meetings.


Further evidence that an outbreak of FMD had been detected as early as December and ‘contained’ by MAFF came to light when it emerged that MAFF officials had approached numerous timber merchants around the country for firewood several weeks before the disease ‘officially’ arrived.


MAFF insisted that such approaches to timber merchants were also a matter of routine and a way of ascertaining resources in the event of an outbreak. However, some of the timber merchants phoned by unnamed officials said that they had not heard from the Ministry since the last outbreak of FMD almost 34 years ago.


Fran Talbot, 70, who runs a timber yard with her husband in Staffordshire, said she was called by a MAFF official in the first week of February and asked if she could supply wood, as she had done during the 1967 outbreak.


James Black, vice chairman of the National Pig Association said; “For the Ministry to approach timber merchants and the army before the outbreak seems a bit strange to me, although we had accepted that there was a need to address and improve contingency plans. If there has been this contact with these industries and the Army beforehand it is significant and worthy of an explanation.”


It is understood that the last full-scale update of the FMD contingency plans took place in 1976. Even after the localised outbreak on the Isle of Wight in 1981, the plans were not updated. Whether the truth of this matter will ever emerge is a debatable point - but now it does nothing to solve the crisis.


Meanwhile, the disease shows no signs of abating and continues to spread. The crisis simply cannot be viewed in isolation; it is not merely the farmers’ problem, or MAFF’s problem - it affects us all. Farmers, butchers, supermarket chains, restaurants and cafes, consumers, the tourist industry... all suffer from the knock-on effects of the disease.


Dog and cat fanciers are also affected and bemoan the loss of their shows, traders who have stocked up to attend large shows, such as Crufts, feel the pinch, their sales unmade, their stock unsold.


But the loss of some shows is a minor inconvenience when put against the bigger picture. True, farmers will receive compensation for the destruction of their livestock - but only at the going rate per head, and this does nothing to save their carefully nurtured dairy herds, their breeding stocks of cattle, pigs and sheep. As breeders ourselves, we should appreciate and understand the farmers’ pain - imagine if one of your dogs had kennel cough and all of your dogs, bitches and puppies, irrespective of age, had to be shot and burned by law, your premises quarantined.


Thankfully, there are no such funeral pyres for our pets.


Eventually, the disease will abate. Life will slowly begin to return to normal. Shows will be held again, some of the bruised, battered, but defiant farming community will re-stock and start again. Next year, we can only hope, newborn lambs will frolic in the fields as we drive past on our way to shows. Maybe lessons will have been learnt by those in authority.


But ever after, the year 2001 will always be remembered as the year Spring died.