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3 September 2001

“Hi, it’s Tony. How are the cows?“

Death trucks in the lane, a terrible stench over the land, phone calls (allegedly) from No 10: Peter

By Peter Dunn

Tony Blair has again assumed personal control of the latest outbreak of foot-and-mouth, across the wilderness fell sides around the Northumberland town of Allendale. We fear the worst in the West Allen Valley, four miles from Allendale. Farmers here had fought off the seven-month plague until it struck Peter Robson’s immaculate Taylor Burn Farm, just down the road from where I live, a week ago.

At Taylor Burn, where the culling crew was into its second day killing 200 sheep and 62 cattle, it was pouring with rain, a truck had bogged down in the narrow farmhouse lane, and a five-week-old calf, panicked by the men in white, had made a run for it. While the crew struggled with the truck and summoned a marksman to finish off the calf (he did so, hours later, with a single shot), the operation’s co-ordinator took a call on his mobile phone. Peter Robson, who was standing near the man at the lane-foot, saw his back straighten and heard him say: “Sir. We’re going as fast as we can, sir.”

“Next thing,” Robson recalled, “he’s put his phone away and called out: ‘You guys. Tony Blair wants to know what the hell’s the problem here and why aren’t you finished?’ I think Mr Blair must have set a new goal, that a farm should be done within 24 hours from the initial report to Defra [the agriculture department]. Well, that was 3pm the previous day, and now it was 3.15pm. I think, in London, he doesn’t understand the scale of the problem here with the narrow lanes and steep bank sides. So when the co-ordinator had finished his call, one of his crew said to him: ‘Tell the bugger to come here and do it himself.’ “

Over the bank holiday weekend, the culling crews have taken out five hill farms within sight of my house. I watch through binoculars as men on quad bikes comb the fell sides, rounding up livestock and driving flocks and herds down to the killing barns. Police have sealed off the valley road to make room for the diggers, the disinfectant trucks and the big metal-sided lorries that will take the corpses to incinerators as far away as Liverpool.

A crew parks its motley of vehicles in the road outside and its co-ordinator tells us that the field lane over the road is to be penned up and used for slaughter. First, though, they have to get eight dead cows up from the old farmhouse below us. The steep lane is too narrow for death trucks, so the carcasses come up, one at a time, balanced precariously on a digger shovel. They are then dropped, with a horrible clonking noise, into the death truck’s metal belly. The house below is now owned by schoolteachers and their three small children. The co-ordinator suggests gently that the parents might like to draw the curtains to spare the children.

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Every farmer in the valley speaks highly of the culling crews’ cool professionalism and tact that borders on tenderness. Painfully understaffed and overworked (most of the vets are European imports), their day starts at 6.30am and carries on long after dark, a metaphor of Blair’s Britain, which blesses the rich and contemptuously stuffs the poor. One of them said that life in the north-east (where six cabinet ministers have seats) was so hopeless that all his family had emigrated – to Houston, Vancouver, France, South Africa and Australia.

Even hardened disinfectant men go quiet when the slaughtermen turn up with their shaven skulls, tattooed arms and jolly swagger. Our pair look like Newcastle gangsters, climbing out of old BMWs with their battered gun boxes and plastic bags of ammunition. The popping and scuffling in the lane over the road seemed to go on for hours. The silence of the lambs was replaced by a macabre dance between death truck and diggers manoeuvring for space to load the floppy carcasses.

In the dark, with headlights bobbing, the diggers looked like pterodactyls in a feeding frenzy. And, after all that, the death lorry stands in the road for two hours with dead sheep hanging slackly over its rim, their startled eyes staring reproachfully into our bedroom windows. In pouring rain, the disinfection crew have run out of water for their high-pressure hoses and have to drive away into the night to find a tap. As the carcasses compress, the pong of post-mortem farting from a hundred slaughtered animals suffuses the mountain air.

The West Allen Valley has an old tradition of mining and teetotal Methodism. The chapel tradition, though dying, has fierce embers. One farmer approached me recently and said: “The Lord just came to me and told me to tell you something, so I will.”

They are, without exception, kindly people who are now grieving for each other’s misfortunes, but, by God, they can also nurture a feud. There has just been a row over a farmer grazing a small herd in a field full of poisonous ragwort, a practice regarded as unforgiveably careless in West Allen. When an indignant network reported the louche fellow to the authorities, one of their number called in the police after finding a ragwort bouquet at his lane-end with a card saying: “Interflora. RIP. RIH.” I took the latter to mean “Rot in Hell”.

The milkman drove up in a flurry on Monday morning, saying there had been bedlam in Catton, a village five miles away, where a new outbreak of foot-and-mouth had just been confirmed. When culling crews turned up mob-handed, the white suits spooked the cattle, causing them to stampede over the drystone field walls into a pasture full of rare breed sheep – in effect putting the sheep on the death list. A BBC television reporter declared (as fact) on the early evening news bulletin that the Catton outbreak had been caused by illegal stock movements from West Allen farms. The libel was dropped after my wife placed an icy phone call to the BBC news desk in London. Rumours about illegal livestock movements (real or imagined) have been rife in this area for weeks.

News of a fresh Blairist initiative seeps through. Night patrols of police and trading standards officers will pull over and check stock trailers. One of the diggermen tells me this is an old initiative, never implemented because the police and county council wouldn’t put up the cash.

Defra men set up a disinfectant station near the Cart’s Bog Inn on the A686 moorland road to Alston, officially the most beautiful road in Britain and one of the ten finest in the world. Macho bikers on powerful machines use it at weekends for terrifying speed tests. With a certain grim satisfaction, the disinfectant crew pulls in a dozen bikers heading for a bank holiday get-together and sprays them from head to foot, soaking their leathers and jeans.

The gloom deepens when, on Saturday, foot-and-mouth is found in a farmer’s herd in Allendale. Clinical symptoms suggest that one of the cows had had the disease for at least five days, possibly nine.

Although this lets my neighbours off the hook as possible primary sources, there is worse to come. This farmer is also a buyer for one of the big meat companies that buy dead stock. His work takes him on extensive travels, to Scotland, an abattoir in Cheshire . . . He has parcels of land all over this area. Will this trigger another nationwide outbreak?

Farmers whose herds have been tested now sit at home dreading a phone call. Especially the one that says: “Prime Minister’s office here . . .”

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