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Booker Column 19 January 2007

This column has reported many strange confrontations between officialdom and the British public over the years, but none more bizarre than the drama which unfolded ten days ago in a field near Newent in the Forest of Dean. At 10.30 on the morning of January 10 no fewer than 22 officials  two state veterinary officials and eight trading standards officials, supported by 12 policemen  turned up, without warning, to slaughter Harriet, a perfectly healthy, nine-year old pet Jersey cow.

Last week more details emerged of the latest twist to a barely credible story which has been unfolding for many months and was raised in Parliament last November by the local MP, Mark Harper. The reason why Defra is so determined to kill Harriet (known to the ministry as bovine animal UK OX0564 00177) is that another calf, born five months later belonging to a different herd on another part of the same Oxfordshire farm, eventually developed BSE. This meant that, under EU rules drawn up as part of ending the British beef ban, Harriet would have to be destroyed as a cohort of the infected animal, because she had been born within a year on the same farm.

In vain did Harriets owner David Price point out that the two animals had never met, could never have shared the same food and that the EU directive only applied to animals intended for the food chain. When this was raised in the Commons by Mr Harper on November 7, the agriculture minister Ben Bradshaw ritually intoned that there was no exemption under EU or domestic law for live cattle, whether or not they are considered to be pets. If Defra allowed Harriet to live Brussels would sue.

A fortnight later, however, a message came from an official in the European Parliament to say a new EU regulation would be coming into force at the end of this month, ruling that an animal need not be destroyed until it reaches the end of its productive life (which, in Harriets case, would mean when she finally dies of natural causes). The message ended I hope this helps. All the best for you and Harriet.

This might have explained why, on January 10, Mr Price was tipped off at 9.20 am that, within the hour, Defra would be sending in a hit squad to kill Harriet. By 10.30 he and a small group of supporters were astonished to see a mass of police blocking off the road, while officials used a bolt-cutter to slice through the chain on the gate to Harriets field (this they said was now quite legal under powers given them by the new Animal Health Act). They then planned to invade the field, corner Harriet and haul her off to be killed and incinerated.

A stand-off ensued lasting four hours, with much mobile telephoning on both sides. The local vicar, the Rev.Patricia Pinkerton, arrived, having asked someone else to take a service, to say that Mr Prices lawyers were applying for an emergency injunction forbidding Defra to take any further action until the case was judicially reviewed. Eventually his solicitor marched sternly up the muddy lane in her smart suit and high-heeled shoes, clutching papers to confirm that the injunction process had begun. The yellow-jacketed officials departed in their fleet of vehicles, leaving Pat Innocent, the observer on whose evidence this account is based, to muse on the famous 1960s experiments by Stanley Milgram showing how easily people can be persuaded by authority to obey foolish orders which result in inflicting unnecessary pain on others.