We are still carefully going through the rituals: each day, a white tub by the lower farm gate is filled with fresh disinfectant, while at distances up the lane, two straw barriers are sprinkled with something called Ionosure. Ferociously powerful stuff. Where it spills, no grass grows. We do this filling and sprinkling as much through a desire to be active as in any hope that it might slay the foot-and-mouth virus now stalking the lanes of Herefordshire.
About 34 years ago, I was on the other side of the farm gate, as a young Sunday Times reporter sent to cover the great Shropshire outbreak. I remember people hanging cut onions from strings in the village shop. Ionosure is better, but still a fairly long shot at saving our cattle and sheep. If one of our neighbour’s animals is infected, Nick Brown’s men will want to come to kill ours, clean though they may be. Not fair, not right, not on.
It’s an odd time. General Brown and his adjutant, Chief Vet Scudamore (good Herefordshire name), speak a ghastly jargon – “slaughtering out” – as they announce a new policy that will kill a further hundred thousand animals. And the very same day, in parliament, people debate at length the stress caused to the lone fox when pursued by hounds.
We are minority voices in farming: deeply unhappy about the slaughter policy and deeply disbelieving in its effectiveness as opposed to a national vaccination scheme. To prefer slaughter to vaccination seems, to us, to disrespect profoundly the animals we care for. Many farmers seem sad to lose their animals but buoyed by the prices they are being offered. One tells me: “They can take the sheep; it’s just a damn shame about Splendid Doherty [his prize bull].” No wonder: it’s a long time around here since breeding ewes sold for £90 and lambs for £60 – the sums he will get in compensation.
It is the farmers with very high welfare standards (the organic farmers, the Hungerford farmer with outdoor-reared pork) who seem most offended by the slaughter policy. Only last week, 2,000 sheep on a farm near the Royal Welsh showground in Builth Wells were slaughtered on a young vet’s mistaken diagnosis. Tests on them came back negative, but too late.
Some would say we can afford to be tender. Farming is not our main income, since I also harvest television programmes, and we care little about the export trade. But there is a lot of hardening of hearts going on. Ben Gill, the National Farmers’ Union president, talks of the suffering of his members (and so he should), but less of the perfectly healthy cattle and ewes with perhaps ten years to live that are being wiped out in pursuit of a failing policy.
Just as there are breeds of sheep, so there are breeds of farmer. Many keep the essential contract with their animals: as good a life as possible, good food and shelter, and the comfort of their own herd or flock for as long as possible, in return for meat. But there are others who are shifty – who, instead of farming, might have been running Ken’s Fly Tippers or Cheap Wheels Minicabs. In part, this virus’s spread may be the result of farmers fiddling their subsidies. The same flock of sheep can be used on several farms, and made to count for each of them.
Not far from us (not far enough) is Kevin Feakins, the Herefordshire sheep dealer who gave the virus to France – if unwittingly – and is the centre of the Herefordshire outbreaks. Feakins appears in the local paper, propped up at his farm gate, evidently happy enough with his trade as a sheep dealer who hurtles flocks all over the country. His main gripe is that the French owe him for the sheep he shipped them and, if they don’t come up with the francs, his company will be done for. Well, hurry up with the winding-up.
The great comfort, the only comfort, one can take is that British farming cannot go on like this. Ordinary consumers have been reacting to the slaughter with disgust and horror. Some friends have stopped watching the news. My wife’s hairdresser, a touchstone in many matters, says: “I’m stopping eating meat. I wanted to eat meat with a clear conscience, and I can’t find it.”
Our new farming must be upmarket, high-value, high-quality farming – in motoring terms, making Mercedes, not the cheaper Fiats. In Europe, our products are already bywords for disease and dirt. British farming will have to be reorganised on quite different lines, no longer chasing the dreary litany of accountants (it is revealing how many economists have defended industrialised farming lately), but something else: quality, for the animals, for the land, for the consumer. It is going to be more expensive, more localised farming: dearer food, better food, more people working the land.
How will it come? Partly from regulation. In Sweden, stringent new animal welfare and environment laws were introduced in the late 1980s, following a campaign by Astrid Lindgren, the author of the Pippi Longstocking children’s books. Farmers hated the changes, but today Sweden has an agriculture that is healthy, good to animals, and profitable.
British reform also requires (surely) the replacement of the Ministry of Agriculture. Fortunately, change is being forced on us anyway by consumers. They are showing the future: buying organic food because they believe it to be better, despite the price. British farming aimed at lowest-cost output has ruined much of the countryside, done appalling damage to wildlife. Now, like an old sow, it is eating its own farrow.