Foot and mouth: protests - farmers barricade land to stop culls

April 22, 2001 Independent on Sunday (London) by James Morrison, 
Colin Brown, And Jo Dillon

OPPOSITION TO the Government's handling of the foot and mouth crisis gathered momentum yesterday as celebrities, farmers and animal welfare protesters joined forces to condemn the culling of healthy livestock.

A day after a Gloucestershire community farm won a reprieve from the mass cull by barricading its entrance, hundreds of demonstrators turned out to support the use of similar tactics by smallholders around the Forest of Dean.

In London, actress Joanna Lumley and singer Lynsey de Paul joined pressure group Compassion in World Farming for a rally in Downing Street aimed at forcing the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) to abandon the cull in favour of a vaccination policy.

Meanwhile, the farmers who helped to bring Britain to a standstill over petrol price rises threatened a new revolt over the spread of poisonous funeral pyres brought by the cull.

An estimated 200 protesters gathered in the Herefordshire market town of Whitchurch yesterday morning in protest at what has become known locally as an "experimental cull" of sheep around the edge of the Forest of Dean.

Earlier this month, Maff officials moved to slaughter around 7,500 sheep kept in the forest, the bulk of them free-roaming. After test results revealed a higher number of those slaughtered showed signs of foot and mouth infection than expected, the policy was extended last week to include all 1,600 sheep kept on the 37 smallholdings around the periphery of the forest.

Pat Innocent, who keeps 19 sheep as pets on her five-acre holding, is one of a number of local people who have refused entry to their premises to the vets sent to kill their animals. Yesterday, as farmers organised a traffic "go-slow" protest along the A40 between nearby Ross-on-Wye and Monmouth, she was refusing to sign a consent form for the slaughter of her sheep and ordered a Maff official off her land.

"First of all, I am not allowing people on to my land, which is private; secondly I have had my solicitor draft an appeal letter to the ministry; and thirdly, there's no way they are going to get me to sign a consent form," she said.

"I have done everything they asked me to do, but on Friday, without warning, I had a phone call from a Maff official saying, 'Hello, tomorrow we are coming to kill your sheep'."

Hundreds of animal rights protesters joined the demonstration at Downing Street, headed by Ms Lumley and Ms de Paul, which saw a giant petition letter handed over to Whitehall officials. Ms Lumley told a cheering crowd: "The truth is vaccination is the only way out of this hideous crisis."

Farmers for Action and fuel protest leader David Handley said farmers who had been blockaded in their own farms were ready to stage more protests aimed at the National Farmers' Union, as well as the Government. "We are not going to keep quiet any longer," said Mr Handley, who has a dairy farm in Wales. "Ben Gill does not represent British farmers. He represents about 35 per cent of the farming community. The vast majority of farmers are angry with the way it has been mishandled."

Ministerial sources said the decision to vaccinate was taken in principle three weeks ago but was held up by the opposition of the NFU. Angry ministers privately said that Tony Blair has been held to ransom by the farmers' leaders and were determined to hit back after the election with a radical overhaul of the farming industry.

Farmers in Devon warned that incidents of the disease would increase as cattle were moved out of sheds on to pasture unless vaccination was started immediately.

As the protests spread yesterday, another Farmers for Action leader, Andrew Spence, said direct action by protesters had closed down a disposal site in Northumberland and a pyre in Tow Law.

A coalition of influential groups and charities, including the Soil Association, Friends of the Earth, the RSPB, the National Trust and the Wildlife Trust, accused the NFU of "letting down" its members by refusing to co -operate with proposals to inoculate cattle. They claimed some farmers were more interested in subsidies than eradicating the disease.

A spokeswoman for the Soil Association said: "We believe this (opposition to vaccination) could be because there is already a good compensation package for farmers who lose animals. We are not saying individual farmers are guilty of this but are being let down by the NFU, particularly in the hot spots of Cumbria and Devon."

The latest wave of opposition to the cull comes in the wake of protests in Devon, where local vets have been threatened with legal action if they try to slaughter healthy livestock.

A Maff spokesman said last night: "We realise this is a very emotional time for many people, but our aim is to do what is best for the wider farming community."

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