'Killing by stealth' hides true scale of slaughter

'Killing by stealth' hides true scale of slaughter

May 20, 2001 BBC by Christopher Booker
BY the greatest conjuring trick of this election campaign, the Government is concealing the fact that it is now killing more animals than at the height of the foot-and-mouth crisis two months ago. Last Thursday the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food proudly announced that the day's total of confirmed cases had dropped to zero.

Few would have guessed that in the preceding 10 days ministry and army death-squads had killed more than a quarter of a million animals on more than 1,000 farms. Between May 4 and May 12 alone, according to the ministry's own figures, it "killed out" 889 farms, an average of 125 a day. The daily average of animals slaughtered in that week was 32,000, nearly three times the figure for the previous week. The total number of animals killed may soon top six million, or nearly a tenth of all Britain's livestock.

But all this is being hidden from view by changes made to the way that Maff presents its figures, to support the Government's wish that the epidemic should be seen to be over by June 7. The vast majority of animals killed are no longer classified as "confirmed cases" but as "slaughtered on suspicion", "dangerous contacts" or "contiguous cull". The advantage of this is that these figures do not show in the daily "headline total".

It is only possible to estimate the scale on which the public is being misled by keeping a daily check on the total numbers of animals slaughtered and premises "killed out". Each day Maff now wipes the earlier figures, so that it is impossible to see by comparison how fast those totals are rising.

Certainly some of the recent rise may be accounted for by the retrospective adding-in of figures not collected accurately earlier. But this cannot explain all this month's huge rise in the number of culled farms, which Maff was last week attempting to minimise by counting all farms in a single ownership as one holding.

Another trick used to conceal the scale of the killing is a new Government edict, the Waste (Foot and Mouth Disease) (England) Regulations 2001. This forces waste management companies, under threat of criminal prosecution, to accept vast quantities of dead animals to be buried in ordinary landfill, much of this done at night. One company, Viridor, last week said that it had so far received "366 loads, 3,980 tonnes, of sheep and pig carcases" at its site at Heathfield, near Newton Abbot.

The slaughter is being carried out by special "task forces" of vets and soldiers, who move into an area and kill everything in sight, as they were doing last week in North Yorkshire, Brecon Beacons, Co Durham, Galloway and elsewhere.

Many soldiers are believed to be deeply unhappy at their role, as is reflected in a letter winging its way round the farming network claiming to be from a member of the Green Howards, involved in slaughter operations in Worcestershire. "My regiment," he writes, "has got all sorts of battle honours for fighting Britain's enemies all over the world, but we are now engaged in hand-to-hand combat with lambs."

He describes how his unit was ordered to finish off lambs by hitting them with "a blunt instrument" or drowning them in a river. "One of my mates," he goes on, "was detailed to stand by a pig which was giving birth; as each piglet was born and crawled away, he had to smash it with the back of a shovel." Worst of all was having to finish off cows shot by slaughtermen. "Some are still crawling around, others clearly still alive but unable to move. We have to beat them to death with lorry spanners. If people really knew what was going on I think there'd be a revolution."

A more public protest came last week from Anthony Gibson, head of the National Farmers' Union in the South-West, who described the "contiguous cull" of millions of healthy animals as "one of the most bloody, tragic and disgraceful misjudgments ever committed in the name of science". Although Maff admits that the number of animals destroyed or awaiting slaughter is now 4.5 million, this does not include as many as 1.5 million new-born lambs, piglets and calves, which raise the total to 6 million.

But so long as the continuing scale of the slaughter can be hushed up until June 7, the greatest political cover-up of modern times will have achieved its purpose.

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