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A peasant revolts

April 29, 2001 Sunday Times (London) by Jonathan Miller

When Jonathan Miller began writing his Mean Fields column, he thought he would be making jokes about life as a 'hobby farmer'. Foot and mouth disease and 6,000 e-mails have changed all that

Just over a year ago we sold our 14ft-wide terraced house in Hampstead, north London, and translated the proceeds into a 17th-century farmhouse set on a 40-acre smallholding on the border of Surrey and West Sussex.

The farm was run down, and I could barely have told you the difference between a sheep and a goat. But as a bucolic ideal it took some beating: owning the land as far as you could see, hearing the nightingales sing at night, riding on the bridleways to isolated pubs.

"You'll be bored in the sticks; you'd better make some trouble," was the advice of one sceptical urbanite as I packed my bags. I laughed this off; I was looking for a quiet life. We installed horses, a small flock of Jacob ewes and a dog and prepared to live happily ever after.

When foot and mouth was announced, my own sheep seemed healthy enough; but I figured I'd better at least note the illness in my weekly Mean Fields hobby-farming column for The Sunday Times, and so I made some inquiries.

One thing led to another and now I have found myself at war with the Ministry of Agriculture, the National Farmers' Union, my local MP, the Countryside Alliance, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, the RSPCA, the Conservative party and the prime minister. Not bad for a new boy.

Doubtless some expensive inquiry will have to be set up to look into the disaster unleashed on our countryside by Maff as a result of foot and mouth. I volunteer my e-mail inbox, which in the past two months has received 6,000 messages from well-informed country people who, like me, believe this has been one of the greatest cock-ups ever by the British state.

Here in my inbox is all the evidence you need to expose the lies, spin, incompetence, cruelty, waste and pathos of policy run amok: the inside story of how Maff turned Britain into Plague Island.

I didn't predict the scale of this calamity, but my cynicism about the official story was stimulated right from the start. Something told me that massive, primitive slaughtering in the face of such a disease seemed peculiar, given that this is the 21st century.

Searching on the internet, I discovered there was a vaccine to protect animals against foot and mouth and that animals who caught the disease could usually be nursed back to health. So why did we have to bring the countryside to such a medieval state?

I went to see Nick Brown, the agriculture minister; but - with the chief veterinary officer, Jim Scudamore, sitting beside him - he recited an official brief that even at the time I could see was completely detached from everything I had learnt independently.

Brown talked about international trading rules that are not as he described them and disparaged talk of modern medicines. It was plain he knew nothing more than his officials had told him.

Scudamore I found a sour, dour man; he plainly regarded me as fit for a pyre myself. I thought Brown oddly chirpy and confident. This was a "new" and "open" Maff, Brown boasted. This turned out to be the biggest lie of all.

My first Mean Fields column pouring scorn on the government's control strategy appeared on February 25 - six days after the first FMD outbreak was disclosed - under the headline "Foot and mouth and stuff and nonsense".

I shared what I had discovered about vaccines and treatment. Although I had no idea how big a scandal this would become, how much this would cost the country and how cynical the motivation, in my column I predicted hysteria.

In objecting to the orgy of killing, I was for some time rather lonely. Apart from The Sunday Times, most newspapers and broadcasters were too lazy to investigate anything for themselves and slavishly followed the government line that the slaughter was essential. The BBC was the worst, offering news bulletins that sounded as if they had been written in Whitehall, while The Archers scripts cravenly toadied to the government.

Eric Perry, the former BBC religious broadcaster, e-mailed me: "This week you have written the most crass and almost evil piece that I have ever read. I am from farming stock and I know about F&M in a way that a rural intruder like yourself will never get near to knowing.

"You are not just a fool, you are a knave, because there are idiots out there (who The Sunday Times are increasingly catering for) who will believe what you write and be taken away from the need to treat F&M with the seriousness it demands. It is too much to expect that your editor will see this, so we will try to contact him in some other way."

There were many, many more in similar vein. But there was also the first handful from people who agreed with what I was saying.

Abigail Woods, a courageous vet and historian, a graduate of the Cambridge University veterinary school who is now writing a thesis on the history of foot and mouth, offered this encouragement: "If it's that serious and fatal a disease in sheep, how come they're saying that FMD is spreading because it's too difficult to spot? Surely any farmer would notice 80% of his lambs dropping dead?

"This is getting quite sickening. The problem is, as time goes on, the stakes get higher. To be forced to vaccinate after slaughtering so many would be tantamount to admitting the whole policy had been misguided - after all, they could have vaccinated from the start. But not only that, they've a 100-year tradition to uphold - Britain has advocated slaughter for so long. Being forced to take another path would not just mean admitting the current slaughter was a mistake but also cast a new and critical light upon many similar past decisions."

I began working on foot and mouth as close to full time as I could manage. I spent many more hours on the internet and phoned people around the world; and my confidence in my initial diagnosis was strengthened.

The United States Department of Agriculture told me that the mortality from foot and mouth disease was usually less than 1%. I spoke to vets in Ottawa, Washington and Israel; to microbiologists in New York and Cardiff; and to farmers in Holland, France and Germany.

Everywhere in the world, including Britain, I found that people agreed with me. So I ratcheted up the abuse, denouncing the slaughter, the corruption, the cost, the pollution, the lies and the collusion.

My e-mail inbox was getting busier. Although the government, Conservative party, BBC and NFU all agreed that the slaughter was necessary, many people were writing to me to say they were with me. Someone even offered to vote for me.

Some e-mails, describing how families had lost prized flocks, pet goats, and even bison and alpacas, were heart-rending.

Many readers offered bulletins on the situation in their own areas and the information was increasingly alarming. From Anglesey I received this from Valerie Marchant-Mapp: "Farmers on Anglesey are actually asking Maff to initiate a cull of healthy animals (sheep) along the length of the Menai Strait to 'protect' the mainland from infection. Animals are already being shot on suspicion without testing. They are then registered on the Maff site as confirmed cases ... I believe this response to be completely hysterical, and driven by greed and politics rather a rational appraisal of the situation."

Sharp-eyed readers started tipping me off to further evidence of Maff's insane control efforts - and of the enormous financial settlements Maff was reaching with industrial farmers, the intimidation at farm gates, the farmers who demanded that Maff kill animals belonging to their neighbours. A catalogue of horror.

Was Maff making the process up as it went along? From almost the start, I demanded that the ministry provide me with its national foot and mouth contingency plan. Brown promised this to me, but 10 weeks later Maff has still failed to deliver. Does it even have a plan?

John Emberton wrote to me, pointing out that "tucked away at the end of an article on page 6 of The Times it was reported: 'Mr Scudamore told MPs yesterday that there was no national contingency model to deal with the present outbreak.'

"I have not seen this outrageous admission reported or commented upon elsewhere in either the general or farming press. If there is any stronger argument for Scudamore to be next in line for the captive bolt I cannot imagine it."

Other correspondents were interested in the murky origins of the outbreak, which the government has blamed on Chinese restaurants, pig farmers, sheep - everything but itself. What did Maff know and when did it know it? Or was it simply asleep?

John Williams e-mailed me, noting that British farmers were not warned of 13 outbreaks world-wide of FMD (Type O/Strain PanAsia/Topotype ME-SA) last year. "Combined with cutbacks at border inspection ports such as Dover and Heathrow, our guard was lowered with disastrous results," he said.

By the middle of March, the mood of my inbox was sharpening as it became clear that an environmental and commercial calamity was occurring.

In addition to the serious compromise of animal welfare orchestrated by a minister who had voted to ban foxhunting because it is "cruel", the countryside was reeling - and the cost of controlling the epidemic dwarfed the value of the livestock industry being protected.

My correspondents saw Brown's claim that everything was under control as just another pathetic Maff lie; and after Blair delayed the general election and took personal command they noticed that nothing changed.

Soldiers moved in to the culling fields, to be appalled at Maff's incompetence. Every day at a Whitehall command centre, a mole revealed to me, top civil servants met to plan their campaign against foot and mouth. The meeting was conducted standing up, supervised by a brigadier.

This was the "show and tell", where Maff was forced to fess up to its daily disasters (eg slaughtered animals polluting water supplies) as officials from other agencies bit their tongues in disbelief.

"Come on Maff, get your f* act together," barked the irritated brigadier. Beyond Whitehall, the peasants were starting to revolt. Peter Kindersley, the former publisher, having made millions, was now doing a bit of farming. Sharing a horror of the slaughter, he turned his farm's website over to the cause.

With its devastating critique of the government, attacking the science, economics and execution of the slaughter, www.sheepdrove.com became the virtual headquarters of a resistance army.

We soon had a scoop. It was an e-mail from Professor Fred Brown, a British born foot and mouth expert now working for the American government, to the Countess of Mar, a farmer and campaigner.

Brown, a fellow of the Royal Society and possibly the most eminent foot and mouth disease specialist in the world, wrote:

"Dear Margaret,

"If you are going to pursue your interest in foot and mouth disease, here are a few facts you may wish to consider.

"1. Infected animals can be distinguished from vaccinated animals by a simple test of their blood.

"2. If a vaccinated animal becomes infected it can be identified by the test described in 1.

"3. If the animals in 2. become infected and then become carrier animals it is extremely unlikely that they would pass on the virus to other animals. Many attempts to infect naive animals by bringing them into contact with carrier animals have failed. There is, as far as I know, just one reported case.

"If it is decided to ring-vaccinate, this would reduce the virus load enormously. In addition it would be ludicrous to slaughter the vaccinated animals subsequently.

"All the rules about moving animals following vaccination are based on the information available before differential diagnostic tests had been devised.

"All good wishes,

"Fred Brown, FRS

"United States Department of Agriculture, Plum Island Animal Disease Center, Greenport, NY."

This was dynamite. It put the lie to the line taken by both Maff and the NFU that vaccine wouldn't work, that if it was used it could prolong the outbreak, and that there was no way to distinguish vaccinated and infected animals.

In Downing Street, Tony Blair was reported to be becoming sympathetic to vaccination, but despite being prime minister was balking at ordering it. Maff insisted that "farmers" (ie, the NFU) were implacably opposed. This raised a new question: NFU - who they?

An NFU member in Yorkshire, Dick Linley, helped me understand how this organisation functioned:

"The present system of voting for the NFU presidential team is conducted exclusively by members of council, some of whom are co-opted members, some are ex-presidents and some have never been voted on for years.

"These individuals hold the entire and only possibility of changing the president of our great union. The rest of the membership, approximately 60,000, is effectively disenfranchised and totally unable to influence the affairs or the direction of the NFU.

"We in the West Riding of Yorkshire are trying to persuade council to allow all paid-up members the right to vote in a secret postal ballot for the presidential team. Our reason for asking for this right to vote is simply that those whose subscriptions pay for the running of the whole organisation should be allowed the right to vote for those persons who would lead that organisation.

"It is, in our opinion, merely a matter of common decency and good taste to allow all members this basic democratic right. It is arrogant, in the extreme, for the establishment to presume that the peasantry do not have either the intelligence or the wisdom to choose a capable and effective leader."

I gave a speech in London, advocating "taking out" the NFU with railway sleepers and red diesel, and Peter Kindersley and I called the first of a series of demonstrations outside Maff's headquarters. Peter also hired lawyers who discovered that the contiguous culling policy had no legal basis.

Since then, sheepdrove.com has encouraged an extraordinary campaign of active opposition to the cull, all organised via e-mail. When a Maff killer squad showed up at Oaklands Park farm in Gloucestershire (which is also a school for the mentally handicapped), there were 250 demonstrators on hand to keep them out.

Groups are now active in the Forest of Dean, Devon, Cumbria and Yorkshire. The successes have been small, in the face of the scale of the slaughter, but we are get-

ting stronger and the morale of government forces in the field is cracking.

Here is an item that arrived in my inbox last week. It's a copy of a letter signed by 40 vets working at the FMD command centre in Dumfries, one of the main Maff kill zones. It shows that the Maffia's own killers no longer believe in what they are doing.

"Dear Prime Minister,

"We are veterinary surgeons who have been working for the past weeks to assist in the eradication of foot and mouth disease from our animals.

"Unfortunately, the attempts to control this infection have been taken from the hands of the chief veterinary officer and control now rests in your office: we understand from the media that you are advised by the government chief scientist (David King), and the professor of epidemiology (Roy Anderson) from Imperial College, London University. It should be pointed out that neither of these men has any veterinary training.

"As a result we are now seeing a savage attack on what livestock remains in the north of England and the southwest of Scotland. Animals are being slaughtered without rhyme or reason, often weeks after the supposed danger farm has been eliminated. This 'scorched earth' policy will undoubtedly result in

the eradication of foot and mouth disease, but it may be a pyrrhic victory.

"Healthy animals will have to be slaughtered but the decision on their fate should be determined by veterinary surgeons, not politicians, soldiers or mathematicians. Our training was to save animal lives and to improve their health and welfare: veterinary surgeons have the unique privilege of being able to kill animals to prevent suffering, but this does not give us the right to indulge in mass destruction of healthy animals because of unproven computer predictions.

"If we are not to be used as professionals we must question why we are employed at all."

It is hard to imagine a more devastating indictment of government policy. So no bets on how long they'll be keeping their jobs.

The silence of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons on their points is meanwhile mystifying. As it happens, I wrote to the college.

"Sir: I notice that all members of the RCVS, in return for the right to practise in the United Kingdom, must promise 'constant endeavour will be to ensure the welfare of the animals committed to my care'. I would have imagined that killing a healthy animal in such circumstances constituted a serious compromise of animal welfare." In due course, I received a feeble reply: "Thank you for your inquiry. The euthanasia, culling or destruction of an animal, which is not an act of veterinary surgery but may be carried out by veterinary surgeons, does not in itself constitute a welfare problem.

"The issue for all concerned with animal welfare is that, when animals must be killed, this is done painlessly and without causing unnecessary stress to the animals concerned."

So we know who not to rely on to crusade for higher veterinary ethics.

Then came an e-mail from Richard Lawson, a GP and Green party campaigner, reporting that Professor Brown had been allowed into a fringe corner of the BBC schedule, Farming Today, to make his case.

Brown had an explosive revelation: Maff had been offered a test in March that would have allowed them to verify foot and mouth on the spot, but Maff turned this down, slaughtering the animals first and then testing. The vets were sent to the field and told to slaughter not only with no proper diagnosis but without even the tools of diagnosis. Maff didn't want to know whether the animals it was killing were diseased or not.

So who benefits from this crazy slaughter? Some people are handsomely profiting, because Maff has been paying far above market value for slaughtered animals. The army was the first to suggest that not all farmers were innocent victims. They were quickly told to shut up.

But the stories persist. Maff is paying two or three times the market rate for the animals they kill, and cheques for millions of pounds (our taxes) are flying out of Maff's windows.

Keri, another Sunday Times reader, e-mailed in a state of shock: "A farmer friend told me yesterday that an infected ewe is now worth Pounds 10,000 on the blackest of black markets, presumably to a farmer who is desperate enough to want to deliberately infect his livestock in order to put them out of their present misery / avoid imminent bankruptcy / claim as much compensation as possible. Why are the animal welfare organisations, normally so vociferous, strangely silent at the moment? Has this dreadful government gagged them as well as most of the press?" My daughter reminds me of the eerie resonance of the disaster to the novel The Plague by Albert Camus, with its chilling bureaucracy of epidemic and death. To me, the killing of healthy animals is more primitive, the pyres like an artistic portrayal of the Inferno.

One can only assume acceleration in the transformation of the countryside after this disaster - not necessarily a bad thing. As a nation, our fitness for keeping animals is pretty questionable, so if it all reverts to woodland this may be for the best. Presumably, farmers can make money selling ice cream to ramblers.

Maff will be rebranded, but nobody will actually lose their jobs and it will just carry on as a cancer in some new department for rural affairs and misdistribution of subsidies.

There are no real lessons in this scandalous episode. It simply reaffirms the deplorable quality of British public administration, which apparently failed even to read the reports into the last epidemic before setting about tackling this one.

No surprises, either, at the dishonesty, hypocrisy and failure of people who promised us joined-up government but found themselves - like so many ministers before them - in an unwholesome relationship with agribusiness, represented by the NFU.

As for the economic calamity visited on the country, who knows what this will cost? It could end up at Pounds 20 billion or even more. Even to a nation inured to shock, this is an extraordinary sum of money.

I have had many letters from people wanting to know how the British people became so complacent to the outrages of their governments. Is it a character defect? Or weary resignation? Why are more of us not on the streets?

What worries the British public most: the pre-emptive killing of nearly 2m healthy animals or the fate of one photogenic charolais calf? Blair's repellent spin control reached a nadir last week when Downing Street claimed credit for sparing Phoenix the calf from the Maff hit squad. Blair has been in personal command as a million of those healthy animals have been haplessly killed. He killed Phoenix's mum! She was healthy, too.

The war with Maff is not over. It is pretty clear that the order has gone out from Downing Street to play down the killing, during the election. But who knows what Maff will do afterwards? We are even told that the government will consider using napalm to burn the corpses. Do we trust Maff with tactical weapons?

And how many humans will end up suffering from the disease? Maff tells us it is no risk to people. Well, it probably isn't until you start throwing decomposed carcasses around - or, as the most recent e-mailer put it, when "Sheep culls man in revenge attack".


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