Cattle cull backlog to cost each household pounds 1,000 in tax

September 16, 2001 Sunday Telegraph(London) by Christopher Booker
A further crisis is building up on Britain's 100,000 cattle farms, under a barely noticed government scheme that will soon have cost the average British household pounds 1,000 in taxes. In a few months' time farmers will be faced with having to look after nearly half a million redundant cattle, which they will not have money to pay for or sufficient feed to keep alive.

Because these are animals more than 30 months old, a BSE-related regulation dictates that they should eventually be rendered down into powder, as has already happened to more than four million cattle since 1996, at a cost to taxpayers of pounds 2.5 billion. But Britain's rendering plants are now so swamped by the need to render down carcasses from the foot and mouth cull that they no longer have capacity to cope with more than a fraction of the animals covered by the "over 30 month scheme" (OTMS). When grass runs out in November and cattle must be brought inside, farmers will not have the resources to look after them, at an average of pounds 10 a week per animal, even if they can find hay and straw, which is already in short supply.

The ruling that cattle over 30 months should be excluded from the food chain and rendered into powder (most of which then has to be stored indefinitely in warehouses) has remained one of the more grotesque by-products of the panic over BSE in 1996. There was no scientific justification for withdrawing these animals from human consumption. The Government's spongiform encephalopathy advisory committee (SEAC) merely recommended that, to play absolutely safe, meat from such animals should be eaten only after "deboning". But in the initial hysteria following Stephen Dorrell's fateful statement in March 1996, the supermarkets and the National Farmers Union called for a complete ban, "to restore consumer confidence".

After initially resisting, the then agriculture minister, Douglas Hogg, offered this to the European Union, in the hope of getting the EU's ban on British beef exports lifted. The EU agreed to set up the OTMS, under Commission regulation 716/96, but without of course lifting the export ban which was its only original purpose. By the autumn of 1996 a crisis was already building up as farmers faced the prospect of having to feed 110,000 cattle, and it took a major effort to organise rendering plants into clearing the backlog.

Since 1996 four million animals have been destroyed under the OTMS, at a cost to taxpayers of pounds 2.5 billion, of which the EU has contributed pounds 500 million. But now, thanks to the pressure on rendering capacity from foot and mouth, that 1996 crisis is about to be repeated on a much larger scale. The backlog of cattle awaiting destruction already stands at 200,000. Because they are still out to grass, this has not yet become critical. But once the grass runs out, and that backlog rises between November and April by 20,000 a week to a total of nearly 500,000, the farmers will be faced with an impossible situation.

At least in former times they might have been able to shoot their cattle and bury them. But since, under EU environmental regulations, this is no longer allowed, it seems as if our increasingly complex system of government is about to present them with a riddle to which there appears to be no answer.

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