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We've brought it on ourselves; agriculture's destructive practices are to blame for foot and mouth. The industry must reform, says a farmer, bob carter

We've brought it on ourselves;
agriculture's destructive practices are to blame for foot and mouth.
The industry must reform, says a farmer, Bob Carter

June 10, 2001, Independent on Sunday (London) by Bob Carter

For the past two months, farmers have wanted your sympathy - for the destruction of their livelihood, the culling of their animals and for the demise of their industry. Yet these are misfortunes that they have wrought themselves. Foot and mouth is a disease for which they must bear responsibility. It is farming practices and a stubborn refusal to change a filthy trade that must be blamed at least in part for this epidemic. But they will not admit it. Nor has there been any apology.

Since the outbreak of foot and mouth, I have not heard a single farmer apologise to the millions who have not had a decent walk for months or been able to take out their dogs, for closing the footpaths of Britain. I am a lamb and beef producer and am as cross as everyone else for the trouble farmers have caused. What other industry can tell everyone to stay at home?

Let me tell you about my neighbouring farmers. Colin, to the south, allowed his cattle to stand up to their hocks in freezing mud all winter. Barry, to the east, spread slurry from a sewage works on his land, so tampons and condoms dotted his fields for half the year. Ian, to the north, herds his flock of sheep with dogs that terrorise the animals and put them under entirely unwarranted stress. It is unnecessary to herd sheep in this way, for there are many more subtle and gentle ways to move a flock.

Richard, to the west, is so negligent in his care of his animals that a ram caught his horns in a feeder in November and, after days of struggle, died of thirst. All the way through December I saw Richard in his tractor drive past the decomposing animal, which was now trodden on by his ewes to get at the food because they were so hungry, and he did nothing to remove it from the feeder until February.

Yet all of these farmers are constant in their denial that the outbreak of foot and mouth is their fault. Of course, it's the fault of farmers like them. The combination of gross over-stocking and reprehensible negligence must be a direct cause of the spread of foot and mouth. The ludicrously large number of sheep across Britain makes the spread of any infectious disease inevitable, and the weakened immune system of the poorly cared for animals can only speed transmission.

Among the worst excesses of farmers are their treatment of sheep on moorlands. Although I share grazing rights with my neighbouring farm on a 500,000- acre moorland, I never put my sheep there. It is not only deleterious to sheep, but injurious to the moorland itself. Sheep, in the density that my local farmers greedily use them, make our moorland into a desert. You can see the marvellous effect that the banning of sheep on moorlands has had during the foot and mouth outbreak. This spring the moor has been covered in flowers and grasses that are usually decimated by desperately hungry sheep.

Farmers use the moors because their fields are needed to make hay for winter feed. If these flocks were halved, then hay could be fed to them and there would be no need to resort to driving them out on to the nutritionless moor; there they risk cross infection with other diseased flocks, pick up parasites, and cause the destruction of birds' and other animals' habitat.

Sheep are also routinely neglected on our moor by Colin, Barry, Ian and Richard, who have absolutely no idea where all their animals are and are incapable of checking them on a regular basis. We all see what is euphemistically termed "fallen stock" every day of the year. Farmers around me act as if it is acceptable to see dead lambs having their eyes pecked out by crows. And those ewes that do not die of disease or starvation are forced to spend most of the summer trailing 10kg of maggot-infested dung behind them.

These agricultural practices are handed down from generation to generation, but that is irrelevant: they constitute bad farming. The farmers I observe have no natural love of animals or talent for looking after them. Their primary concern seems to be the restriction of public access to their land. We should make sure that they have to participate in a new and better network of footpaths, by making licences to farms dependent on participation in public access projects.

Farmers also try to defend the status quo by claiming they provide food for our nation. This is risible. The supermarkets have long since stopped relying on the British meat industry for food. One of the most revealing aspects of the foot and mouth crisis was that it failed to affect meat supplies at the shops. What we do need is better British meat, with a watchdog to enforce best practice. It will be difficult, because our industry brooks no opposition and allows no criticism. There are too many people whose interests are at stake; not only the farmers, but the agri -chemical industry, which ploughs huge sums of money into the promotion of poor farming. The fertiliser, pesticide and herbicide producers need farmers like Colin, Ian, Richard and Barry because they are farmers who have to use chemicals to compensate for the way they farm.

Meat will cost four times what it does now, but it will be ten times better, in terms of the welfare of the national flock, conservation, public access, landscape and, most importantly to me, taste on the plate. The consequence of this will be that people will eat four times less meat, but that, as every dietician will tell you, is no bad thing.

All farming subsidies should be stopped forthwith, and the land of farmers who then quit should be sold to those mostly retired or professional people who really care for the countryside, who plant and tend woodland, and have no interest in carrying on farming. These newcomers tend woodland properly and care about conservation and maintenance of a fine landscape. Colin, Ian and Richard's woodlands have been overrun by famished sheep forcing their way through sub-standard fencing to eat all the young saplings, thus condemning the woods to death.

Those of us who farm with high standards must now turn on the bad farmers and say: you are no longer welcome in our industry. It's the farmers who must be culled, or at least put out of business for ever. I would suggest that about half should go. But, please, don't feel sorry for those being thrown on the dung heap. When they are forced out of the industry they will get hundreds of thousands of pounds from selling their assets. Compare that to the miners who received pounds 20,000, if they were lucky, when they were forced out of the industry after a life down the pit. Most farmers are sitting on hundreds of thousands of pounds of assets in land and buildings (much of which they have allowed to fall into decrepitude through their own laziness and stupidity).

So when the new government turns to the root-and-branch reform of our industry, I want politicians to know that there are farmers out there who know how to produce meat in the modern world and who yearn for fundamental change in our moribund, bankrupt industry.

Bob Carter (not his real name) is a sheep farmer.


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