Why farming will never be the same

David Rose reports from a countryside where foot and mouth is having a devastating effect on farms and families. And if they are forced out of business, it will affect our food and our way of life - by finally delivering control of the land into the hands of big business

Special report: the countryside in crisis

David Rose
Sunday April 15, 2001
The Observer

On a sunny afternoon in April, when the bracken cloak around the fells is showing the year's first green and the valley seems to rumble with the murmur of pregnant ewes, Millbeck farm in Langdale seems far too peaceful a place to be a battlefield. Its old stone buildings stand near the hub of the central knot of Lakeland fells: miles of mountains on all sides. Their protection is illusory. As foot and mouth creeps ever nearer, northward over Crinkle Crags from the slaughtered flocks of the Duddon valley; down via Borrowdale from the infected flanks of Skiddaw, Millbeck is on the front line of a culture war.

At Millbeck, and at thousands of small-to-medium sized farms across the country where the soil is tilled and animals raised in ways which seem to be timeless, the unequal fight against the virus masks a deeper struggle. Foot and mouth, and the chaotic, bloodstained means by which the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) has chosen to try to contain it, have hastened the outbreak of this battle, and may already have determined its outcome.

On one side lies agribusiness: the transnational, commercialised world of the East Anglian 'barley barons' with their quasi-prairies, enemies of biodiversity; the folks who brought you BSE through their industrial cultivation of meat. These are the men who have long dominated the national council of the National Farmers' Union, and through it, wielded overwhelming influence in Maff.

It was this which caused the two signal policy errors at the outset of the crisis and turned it into a catastrophe - the ruling out of even limited vaccination, and, as NFU president Ben Gill urged on 22 February, the issuing of advice designed to make people 'stay away from the countryside'. (Finally, eight weeks too late, the Culture Secretary Chris Smith admitted last Friday that the latter policy had been a mistake.)

Last week, Tony Blair appeared to indicate that his strategic vision for the future was to give yet more power to this camp. 'The Government plans a major reduction in the number of farms and farmers as part of a recovery package [sic] for British agriculture in the wake of the devastating foot and mouth outbreak,' said one newspaper story. Ministers expected the number of farms to fall by at least 25,000 by 2005, with 50,000 people forced to leave the industry. Maff - who else? - was about to publish three 'major reports' arguing big farms were more productive, and better able to compete with their counterparts in the Pampas and American Midwest.

On the other side are people like the Taylforths: people who find it far from easy to turn a bottom-line profit even in good times, despite hefty subsidy. The rhetoric of this underlying struggle sounds eerily familiar. Uneconomic farms, uneconomic pits: the language of Maff and the NFU leadership is the language of Margaret Thatcher, circa 1984, as she prepared to deal with her 'enemy within'.

But before we hand victory to the side with power and influence and seemingly impeccable financial logic, we ought at least to pause. The social devastation in many former mining areas is still palpable - the Welsh valleys, for example, once proud bastions of sport, music and intellectual endeavour, have been ravaged by crime, unemployment and drugs. Most of us, however, barely notice the virtual demise of the coal industry, other than that our air and buildings are cleaner. The consequences of small farming's collapse may be more visible and keenly felt - not just by farmers, but by everyone who uses the countryside: as tourists and providers of tourism; as ramblers, climbers, and picnickers, those of us who love the land of Wordsworth, Ruskin and Constable; as consumers of food.

After 21 years in Langdale, Eric and Susan Taylforth are facing up to the strong possibility that they will be Millbeck's last tenants. So far, only six of their 2,500 sheep have been killed - beasts who made the mistake of straying across the watershed into Duddon, where the slaughtermen were waiting. But whether or not the disease eventually infects the rest of their pedigree Herdwick flock, the virus, coupled with Maff's control measures, is set to ruin them nevertheless.

Across the table in the room that serves as his lounge and office, Eric Taylforth explained the human and financial sides to the emerging catastrophe. He had spent the winter rearing 60 cattle which he should have sold a month ago. Because of the disease, he had been unable to move them: 'Instead of getting that income, I'm paying for their feed and housing. I don't have the pasture to put them out to grass. There's no prospect of getting rid of them for at least six months.'

He also had 250 of last year's Herdwick lambs ready for sale. They, too, could not be moved. Another 350 fattening 'Gimmer hogs' had wintered on a farm in the north of the county where the disease has been at its worst: caught within a three-kilometre cull zone near a case of infection, their lives have been spared so far only because Mr Taylforth has exercised his right of appeal. All 60 of his young breeding tups (rams) were in the same position, awaiting confirmation of their death sentence in another cull zone outside Carlisle.

He bought 11 of these animals only last year: they cost more than #1,000 each. The rest of his stock was on the fells, mingling in their immemorial way with animals from other farms and valleys. Three weeks ago, vaccination would have saved them. Now, with 900 of them about to give birth, rounding them up to administer the vaccine would probably prove impossible.

The potential loss here goes far beyond one family's livelihood and a few thousand sheep. The agricultural archaeologists of the National Trust believe that the direct ancestors of the Taylforths' Herdwicks were roaming the same unfenced 'heaf', the rugged tract from Pavey Ark and Harrison Stickle down to the top of Grasmere, by the start of the fifteenth century at the latest; they may have been there around the turn of the last millennium. Once the present generation falls prey to the bolt gun, or their masters to the plague's brutal economics, it is difficult to see how either can be replaced, even if the Herdwick bloodlines can somehow be preserved.

Heafed flocks stay on the hills through a homing instinct ingrained over centuries. 'I remember a friend of mine who bought a lot of new sheep to enlarge his hill-flock and put them on the fells,' said John Metcalfe of the National Trust. 'They just started drifting down again, trying to get back to where they'd come from.'

The tragedy is that despite the length of their farm's tradition, the Taylforths have adapted it in the best, sustainable, twenty-first-century manner. Together with four other farmers, they have formed a direct sale co-operative, supplying personal customers, specialist butchers, high-quality restaurants and a specialist market in London. Aware of a link between farming and tourism which is as organic as the meat the Taylforths produce, the couple run a bed-and-breakfast business and two holiday villas. At what should be the busiest time of year, both are empty. '

'Our income is zero,' Eric Taylforth said. 'Just to keep the animals fed we've had to increase our overdraft by #30,000. On this basis, we can't carry on. The people of this country have got to make a decision: do they want good quality food produced on farms like ours or the mass-produced food which will throw up problems like BSE and genetic modification at regular intervals. That's what this crisis is really about. For myself, the fact that I'm sitting here at the mercy of the virus in a modern society which is letting millions of animals be slaughtered with no end in sight is beyond belief.'

Time and again over the past fortnight, as I talked to farmers, hoteliers, the people who run tourist attractions and some of the vast numbers whose principal recreation is to be outdoors, I encountered the same emotions: a howling, pent-up mixture of anger and despair - as Eric Taylforth put it, 'you just don't know whether to weep or scream or with rage'. Outside the Whitehall bubble, awareness is growing that once again, New Labour is trying to spin its way out of trouble.

But foot and mouth is not like the rows over Bernie Ecclestone of Formula One or the problems of Peter Mandelson. This is real: costing billions, and grossly affecting the basic freedoms and quality of life enjoyed by millions of citizens.

The bad news for the Government is that people are beginning to realise they have been deceived. Why, for example, did Maff stop publishing the totals of animals killed and awaiting slaughter last week? Maff claims it was because the figures might be 'inaccurate'. Partly because, as Maff admitted on Friday, the number of animals awaiting slaughter in the so-called firebreaks around infected farms had more than doubled to more almost 540,000, so negating the policy's basic rationale. There was another reason. At the start of the public holiday, the slaughter total will have passed one million - an Easter headline Blair wished to avoid. By the time the epidemic is over, it is certain to be more than double, maybe even triple this figure - at least five times the number killed in the last foot and mouth outbreak of 1967-68.

Upbeat assessments from the Chief Scientific Adviser, David King, that the plague has 'passed its peak' have become a regular feature of the foot and mouth media week. On the ground, his optimism appears inexplicable. Farmer after farmer pointed out that the basis of his predictions, the number of new cases notified, took no account of the new 3km cull policy, which could engulf literally dozens of farms around a single proven case of infection. Last week, when a case appeared miles from other outbreaks in Jedburgh in Scotland, animals from 26 neighbouring farms were slaughtered too: many of these may already have been harbouring the disease, but did not get into the figures.

However fierce the spin, the inescapable, underlying horror becomes more apparent with each passing day. Will Cockbain, who waits, powerless, for the virus to cross the River Greta and erase his Swaledales from the hills above Derwent Water, put it very simply: 'The slaughter policy hasn't worked, isn't working. The price is far too high. If it does eventually stop the disease, there may not be any livestock left. If this is the best way to beat the virus, I would hate to see the alternative.'

Cockbain is a regional representative of the NFU, and his views run directly counter to the union's national leadership, whose support for slaughter - motivated by an increasingly surreal desire for an early return to live animal exports - remains undiminished. But as he points out, having come this far, Maff, its Minister, Nick Brown, and the NFU will find it very difficult not to stick to their bolt guns. For the advocates of slaughter, the consequences of admitting there might have been a far less damaging alternative in the shape of early vaccination are too terrible to contemplate. Cockbain said: 'They're scared to go down the vaccination route because they're frightened it might actually work.'

Thus far, the only official answer to the failure of killing is to call for more killing - exactly the position stated by a team of scientists from Imperial College who have been advising the Government throughout, and who produced a study last Wednesday which concluded: 'Extensive culling is the only option for controlling the current British epidemic.' Echoes of Thatcher again: 'There is no alternative.' By the end of the week, even these optimists were betraying their unease. The lengthening delays to killing animals in the 'firebreaks' meant a third of British livestock might have to die.

Early on Wednesday evening came the first signs of what might yet become a U-turn to end U-turns. As I sat in the Taylforths' parlour in Langdale, the fax machine chattered into life. It was an urgent 'priority message' from David MacLean, the Tory MP for Penrith and the Border, seeking farmers' views of a new proposal which had just been put to him by Brown. The Minister had asked him to garner views on the 'possibility of vaccinating all cattle herds, but not to slaughter them eventually', using 'the latest American-style vaccine' which would grant protection almost at once. These animals' meat and milk would be fit for human consumption, and 12 months after the last shot were administered Britain could begin exporting again.

Twelve hours after making his appeal, MacLean had hundreds of responses, 'overwhelmingly in favour' of vaccination. Only the big-time cattle breeders and exporters remained opposed. His impression was that Brown was serious about the idea, and 'using me as a bit of political cover - why else would he consult an Opposition MP?' Yesterday, however, Maff was insisting this was only another 'review', not a prelude to a new policy. Half a million vaccine doses could be administered almost immediately. As Cumbria's bovines emerge from the protection of winter quarters on to grass, every hour's delay means more burning carcasses.

Meanwhile, around Longtown, whose border market was the origin and epicentre of the plague in Cumbria and southern Scotland, residents have already endured some 700 pyres. Last week I watched as a pyre was lit for 2,000 animals slaughtered at Spray House farm on the slopes of Kinder Scout.

The fires are fuelled by cheap coal and railway sleepers, coated in creosote: when it burns, it produces eight carcinogenic compounds, including dioxins. Some of the other effects of the pyres were described at a public meeting in Longtown last Wednesday night. Residents described how chunks of half-burnt skin had wafted into their homes on the breeze. Peter Tiplady, North Cumbria's director of public health, admitted some of the cows burnt at Longtown were 'likely' to have had BSE.

MAFF has already poured #2 million into building a giant pyre at Longtown which was supposed to burn for months. As a result of the meeting, it may never be lit. Yet the Ministry is pressing ahead with a similar plan near Petrockstowe in Devon. Stand by for the first investigative documentary about childhood deformities and cancers, and huge claims for damages in the courts.

On the question of whether we might have avoided this disaster by early vaccination, and the alleged inevitability of slaughter, Maff's spin shades into out right disinformation. Among the claims fed to the media since the crisis began are the following: that vaccine is prohibitively expensive; that it takes 14 days to protect an animal against the virus; that the present 'O-Pan-Asia' foot and mouth strain is unusually virulent and likely to render vaccine ineffective; and that resuming exports would be difficult or impossible because there is no test to distinguish between an animal which has been vaccinated and one which harbours the disease. Not one of them is true.

In the course of an admirably candid interview, one of the Government's most senior advisors, Professor Chris Bostock, director of the Institute of Animal Health, demolished all these claims. Bostock suspects that by the time the outbreak became apparent in February, it had already spread too far for vaccine to have stopped an epidemic, although its adoption early on 'might have slowed the spread of the disease'. But vaccination by Maff would not cost farmers a penny, he said; the actual cost was probably about #5 per shot. The vaccine held in his institute's bank at Pirbright was a high-dose type which would provide six months' protection within about three days. O Pan-Asia was no more virulent than other strains, merely rather preva lent over the past few years. And although they have not yet been approved by the international veterinary body, the Organisation Internationale des Epizooties, there are tests which can tell vaccine and disease antibodies apart.

The most shocking thing is that contrary to Maff spin, if we had adopted vaccination at the start of the outbreak, we would merely have been carrying out official EU scientific policy. In March 1999, the European Commission adopted the Strategy for Emergency Vaccination against Foot and Mouth Disease, the work of its scientific committee on animal health and welfare. Vaccination, the report said, can achieve several objectives: a reduction in numbers of infected animals; the slowing of the spread of the disease; the reduction of economic loss. It also set out criteria for when this would be the best course to adopt, many of which were clearly met in Britain when the epidemic was beginning: a high density of animals in affected areas; evidence of widespread animal movement; a suitable vaccine available; a steeply rising incidence of cases.

There are eminent British scientists who agree. Professor Derek Ellwood lives on the shore of Derwent Water. The former director of the Government's pathenogenic microbe lab at Porton Down, he has worked with deadly human viruses such as Ebola and HIV, and he is scathing about the way the epidemic ran out of control. 'There was no proper, open debate about what to do, especially over vaccines. The scale of the outbreak could have been massively reduced, and there would have been no need for many of the Draconian measures which have been introduced.' His own research leads him to conclude that airborne spread is far easier than Maff will allow - suggesting the effectiveness of slaughter will always be very limited.

So why did Maff and Brown so easily disregard all this advice? Partly, perhaps, for cultural reasons: as the historian Michael Worboys points out in his book Spreading Germs , slaughter, rather than vaccination or treatment, has been the preferred way to deal with livestock illness since the cattle plague of 1865. But also, inevitably, because of the power of agribusiness. The NFU ensured that when vaccination might have been seriously effective, in the last week of February, it was not seriously considered. A fortnight ago, when Brown was last dithering over whether to authorise vaccination, he was headed off again by the NFU. Its deputy director general, Ian Gardiner, insisted 'we are moving into the endgame'. In Cumbria, Devon, Dumfries and Gloucestershire last week, that was beginning to look like a criminal delusion.

And so it is that over the length of Britain we begin to count a vast and rising cost, and the despair and anger mount. However shrill Ministers' insistence that the countryside is open for business, it is barely open at all, even in areas without a single case of foot and mouth. I spent a fine but dismal day just before the holiday weekend touring the Peak District national park. At Speedwell Cavern in Castleton, at the head of Hope Valley, the queue would normally have been snaking up the hill, with a minimum two-hour wait. The car park was empty. Normally, the village pavements would have been overflowing. In one gift shop, where turnover was down more than 90 per cent, the owner, Pam Oldfield, wept openly when I asked how things were going. 'I put everything I had into this, and I love it, love it, the buying and the selling, it's great. But you can't just sit here and not pay your rent.'

Down the valley in Hathersage, Dick Turnbull has spent 17 years building up Outside, a chain of three walkers' and climbers' shops employing 30 people. Mr Turnbull reckons he will have lost #250,000 by the end of Easter. He is a determined man, who has climbed all the great Alpine north faces in winter: unwilling to capitulate, he has put his house up as collateral for an extended loan.

The Hope Valley is being ruined because every moor and footpath and almost every crag in the Peak national park is closed. At Ringinglow, overlooking Sheffield, sheep wander freely over the open moorland road. There you can legally stop, even give these beasts a sandwich. Stray on to a public footpath or a wall of heather-framed gritstone, however, and you could be fined #5,000. In parts of the Scottish Highlands, meanwhile, on open land with just as many animals there is still a right to roam.

Where is the logic, the scientifically based risk assessment one would assume had been done to justify these restrictions? I asked their Peak District architect, John Lomas, the national park's chief conservation officer. He admitted there was none. He had not consulted a single scientist about the real risk of walkers or climbers spreading the disease in an area where there had been no outbreaks. He knew that Maff had now issued guidance stating that paths which avoided livestock and open moors should be reopened, but he had done a risk assessment of his own, based on local knowledge and talking to his rangers. His conclusion was that it was still too risky because it was impossible to separate paths which crossed arable land from those which went near grazing, while Peak District sheep were 'unusually friendly'. Small wonder, perhaps, that the internet is humming with the protests of climbers and walkers who are beginning to think of challenging the restrictions with a mass trespass. I ran Lomas's logic past Professor Bostock. The risk of walkers spreading the disease was 'negligible,' he said.

Last night I spoke to Eric Taylforth again. 'They're still saying on the news that the worst is over,' he said, and chuckled grimly. 'They should come up here. Of course, if we close, there's no one going to take our place. That's the end of this farm. Big business doesn't want to know about Herdwick hill farming.'

If he and thousands of other small farmers do close, the British countryside is going to change in ways that are permanent. When one has been away for a while it's easy to forget just how beautiful Lakeland is. What makes it unique is the way its grandeur has been softened, blurred at the edges, by the interaction between nature and human beings.

That is now in jeopardy: as A. Harry Griffin, the veteran Guardian country diarist wrote last week, the end of the Herdwicks will swiftly create a dystopia of broken walls, and rampant gorse, juniper and bog. The new leaves on the trees deceive us. Across most of Britain, spring has been cancelled.

then and now

7 Agriculture has declined from being 3 per cent of national gross domestic product in 1975 to just 1 per cent.

7 Over the same period, farms and herds have got bigger in size as smallholdings have become less economically viable. Pig farmers in 1978 kept an average of 200 animals. By 1998 that figure was 500.

7 Farms have also become more productive, with a smaller number of workers. In 1974 Britain produced 160 tonnes of wheat a hectare, compared with just 100 in 1974. But during the same period the rural workforce shrank from about 600,000 to 390,000.

7 Government figures expect the trend to bigger farms and fewer workers will continue. By 2005, 50,000 more workers will have left farming and 25 per cent of farms will have closed or merged with their neighbours.

Guardian Unlimited ) Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002