Muckspreader 20 november 2003

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Phyllida Barstowe is not only an admired novelist and married to the journalist Duff Hart-Davis, but professionally breeds Wiltshire Horn sheep on their Gloucestershire farm. Until recently her flock roamed happily over the meadows round a fine young pure-bred ram. Then, on 1 September, she was visited by the department for the elimination of farming and rural affairs (Defra), to test her sheep under the EU-sponsored 'National Scrapie Plan'.

To understand what happened next, some background is relevant. Defra, it may be remembered, has spent millions of pounds trying to establish a link between scrapie, a brain disease affecting a tiny minority of sheep, and BSE, a brain disease affecting a tiny minority of cattle. They haven't actually found any link (although readers may recall the famous episode when they tested thousands of sheep's brains for two years, only to discover they had been looking at the brains of cows). 

The reason for such excitement, of course, is that Defra still believes there may be a link between BSE and vCJD, a brain disease affecting a tiny minority of human beings. So, if they can prove a link between scrapie and BSE, this would be a tremendous breakthrough, because it would show there may be a link between eating sheep and CJD. They also believe that a tiny minority of sheep are genetically susceptible to scrapie. They have therefore taken this as justification, on EU orders, to test pedigree sheep. Any which do not have the 'scrapie-resistant genes', they can then order to be slaughtered or castrated.

Every step of Defra's tortuous logic is in fact based on a hypothesis for which there is no proof. There is no proven link between eating cattle infected with BSE and CJD (indeed this becomes ever more implausible). There is no evidence that any sheep has ever naturally become infected with BSE There is no evidence that scrapie has ever infected humans. Even the theory about scrapie-resistant genes has been rubbished by one of the top independent scientists in the field. Dr. Alan Dickenson. The whole of the EU's scrapie eradication programme thus rests on a card-house of unproven hypotheses.

When Defra tested the brains of 54,000 sheep from abattoirs, they did find 56 infected with scrapie. But no fewer than eight of these also possessed their so-called 'scrapie resistant genotype'. Since this made total nonsense of their theory, they then carried out another test, which luckily came out with the result they were after: i.e. that only 28 of the sheep were infected with scrapie, none of which had the resistant gene. 'At present it is not known if the cause of these findings' said Defra, 'is a flaw in the methodology'. But, flawed methodology or not, the great thing was they still had the excuse they needed to kill any animal they could find without that 'resistant gene'.

All of which brings us back to Mrs Hart-Davis's Wiltshire Horn ram, Of course it turned out to be the one animal in her flock without the resistant gene. So, although it was a perfectly healthy young sheep, off to the slaughterhouse under EU rules it had to go - on the basis of four different hypotheses piled on top of each other, for not one of which there is any proof a genuine scientist could accept.  Mrs Hart-Davis was none too pleased.