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Private Eye

Muckspreader 16 june 2004


 No one can say Defra is not tireless in its efforts to get into the Guinness Book of Records. One of its proudest moments, as we know, was when, in its response to the 2001 foot and mouth crisis, it managed to kill a record 9 million perfectly healthy farm animals. But now Defra has a new target in its sights.
 
The latest wheeze is a plan to slaughter and burn 23 million healthy lambs - an entire year’s crop - if only the scientists can somehow manage to find a single sheep infected with BSE.

That alone might alert us that we are once again entering the twilight world of the longest-running farce in British agriculture.  To recap on just how surreal this story has become, we must first remind ourselves that there is still not a shred of proof to connect eating BSE-infected beef with CJD. Indeed, as CJD figures continue to decline, the evidence seems only to confirm that such a link never existed. But once the BSE-hysteria was unleashed this opened up for the scientists the prospect of unlimited funding, if only they could keep the scare going. And one lucrative sideline soon became the search to find BSE in animals other than old cows.

Their prize target was to find BSE in sheep, which had for centuries been susceptible to a related brain-disease, scrapie. There was brief excitement when they thought they had found BSE in sheep, only to discover that they had muddled up sheep’s brains with those taken from BSE-infected cattle. But this did not deter them from their quest. The only problem was that, try as they might, they just could not find a single BSE-infected sheep.

Then the EU entered the act. Just in case a link might one day be found, Brussels agreed to a ‘National Scrapie Plan’. Millions of sheep must be tested, to see which were genetically most likely to contract scrapie. Steps would then be taken to stop those animals breeding, to eliminate the ‘killer gene’ from the national flock. But, with their eye still on the real prize, the scientists then came up with a brilliant new theory. It has only proved impossible to find BSE in sheep, they say, because it might have been ‘masked’ by the more obvious signs of scrapie.

Armed with this new thesis, Defra submitted to Brussels a new ‘contingency plan’, without revealing what they had in mind to Britain’s 70,000 sheep farmers. But when they called in the press to explain their new strategy, one official, Michael Beuler, let slip that, if BSE was ever found in sheep, Defra might order the killing of every lamb in Britain, 23 million in all,  then forbid farmers from allowing their sheep to breed for two years. When the farmers asked whether their lambs would be tested before being slaughtered, Defra said this would be too expensive, and anyway Brussels wouldn’t allow it.  
 
So Defra’s policy is now that, if that holy grail is ever found, its officials will be quite happy to kill 23 million fluffy little lambs, even if they are all perfectly healthy, and see the collapse of Britain’s sheep industry. The one bright spot is that, since sheep do not catch mad cow disease, such an insane disaster is unlikely to materialise. But when the scientists have already shown themselves capable of mistaking sheep brains with those of cattle, who can  really bank on it?