Booker Notebook, Friday, 20 july

Blair puts paid to six centuries of tradition

Few people have yet grasped the catastrophic implications of last week's announcement that the Government is to pay for the slaughter of two million lambs which under European Union rules can no longer be exported. What this means is that Mr Blair's gamble over foot-and-mouth has finally failed. Thousands of sheep farmers face bankruptcy. Vast areas of upland Britain will be denuded of sheep. Some of our most celebrated moorland and mountain landscapes will be irrevocably changed.

More than anything which has happened since the start of the foot-and-mouth epidemic in February, this spells an end to 600 years when sheep-based exports have played a greater part in shaping Britain's countryside than is generally realised, back to the 15th century when sheep paid for the great "wool churches" of East Anglia and the west country, and when the combination of English wool and Flemish weavers made Bruges the first banking capital of Europe.

The central gamble Mr Blair took when he assumed control of Britain's foot-and-mouth crisis back in April was that, by stepping up the mass-slaughter policy, he could get the EU's export ban lifted earlier than if he opted for vaccination, as most international experts were advising. What in fact has not been widely understood is just how odd that EU export ban was. Under international trade rules, there is absolutely no bar to countries with foot-and-mouth continuing to export meat and milk products, so long as these are accompanied by a vet's certificate that they do not come from an infected zone. The same applies to products from animals which have been vaccinated. Under these rules Britain is still to this day importing meat from 26 countries around the world which have foot-and-mouth and use vaccination. Only within the EU does Brussels have the power to impose a ban on exports from subject states, as it did when foot-and-mouth first appeared in Britain in February.

What Mr Blair was told in March was that, if he wished to see this ban lifted, he could either go for vaccination, in which case the ban would end 12 months after the vaccination programme was completed; or he could attempt to end the epidemic by mass-culling, in which case the ban would end three months after the last outbreak. He was convinced by his scientists, led by Professor Roy Anderson and Professor David King (neither of them veterinary experts), and by the NFU that the slaughter policy would get the ban lifted sooner.

This is the gamble which it is now clear has horribly failed. Outbreaks of foot-and-mouth are again rising (last week there were 10 in one day). And even the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs now tacitly concedes the epidemic will continue well into next year, which is why, as I revealed last week, it has put 1000 vets under contract until next May. This means exports cannot restart until the end of next summer at the earliest, whereas if Mr Blair had gone for vaccination in April the ban could have been lifted months earlier.

Hence the Government's forlorn plan to offer #10 a lamb to kill two million next winter; nothing like enough to keep tens of thousands of already desperate sheep farmers from bankruptcy. It is even doubtful how the scheme can work at all, since rendering plants required to incinerate the lambs are already stretched to breaking point by the need to burn millions of animals under the existing cull policy, plus 300,000 cattle now awaiting destruction under the over-30-month scheme.

Inevitably across vast areas of upland Britain sheep will disappear, and within a year or two, as scrub and bracken take over, landscapes like Snowdonia, the Lake District, the Brecon Beacons and Dartmoor will begin to look dramatically different. Even if the export ban is ever lifted, there will be infinitely fewer sheep left to export. And this will make a total mockery of all that pious claptrap last week in London from Margaret Beckett and Renate Kunast, the ex-social worker who is her opposite number as Germany's farming minister, about how the EU's farmers must now become primarily "stewards of the environment".

How poignantly Mr Blair must look at Holland where, four months ago, with EU permission, foot-and-mouth was stopped in its tracks by vaccination in a matter of weeks. This could have been done in Britain. If Britain had not been part of the EU, her exports could not have been banned anyway and our lamb trade could still be in full swing. As it is, Mr Blair is doomed to go down in history as the man who brought an end to 600 years when Britain was the most successful sheep and wool exporting country in Europe.

Christopher Booker - published in the Sunday Telegraph and sent to the warmwell website July 22 2001