The Killing Pens

November 12 2004 ~ "If you have any pangs of conscience about what is happening to farming in the UK, want to glimpse the depths to which 'official'political policies will sink in order to uphold the cruelly undertaken and out-dated policy of dealing with an epizootic by the medieval mass slaughter of livestock..... 'The Killing Pens' illuminates some of the darker areas of the Government machine..." part of a review on Amazon.com for Janet Hughes' The Killing Pens


FOREWORD by Christopher Booker
In more than 40 years as a journalist, I have never covered a story remotely like that of the 2001 foot and mouth disaster. During that year, in the Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail and Private Eye, I wrote more words about that dreadful crisis than anyone. There were two features of this story which made it an unprecedented chapter in our national life. The first was the grotesque incompetence with which the Blair government responded to the epidemic, killing millions of healthy animals in an orgy of slaughter which was not justified either by science or the law.
This amounted, as I wrote at the time, to one of the greatest acts of maladministration by any British government in history. The other was the horrendous damage and pain the government's actions inflicted on Britain's rural communities, and on all those directly involved - countless thousands of farmers and their families, and those who struggled against all odds to keep afloat every kind of rural business. For many of them those months were like living through some unreal nightmare, a cross between Kafka and Dostoevsky. If ever a real-life drama deserved to be recorded in a book it was this one, and there are two general ways in which this might be done. One is to try to give an overview of the whole story, from the conduct of the politicians and their advisers 'at the top', right down to the consequences of their decisions as these affected 'ordinary people', in Cumbria, Devon and north Yorkshire, in the west Midlands and in Wales. That is what Dr Richard North and I tried to do in our account of the story, Not The Foot And Mouth Report, published by Private Eye in September 2001.
The other approach is to give a detailed eyewitness account of the crisis by someone who was directly involved. And in that respect no one is better qualified by the remarkable part she played in the story at the time than the author of this book, Janet Hughes. Those awful, confused, tragic months threw up a good many heroic individuals: people who bravely tried to stand up for truth and decency when the politicians and their officials, like an army of Orcs, were trampling both into the bloodstained earth. One such was Professor Fred Brown, the lovable Lancastrian who was perhaps the world's leading veterinary expert on FMD and who, right from the start, with his admirable Dutch colleague Dr Simon Barteling was pleading for the government to use vaccination, to stop the insane slaughter. Another was Mary Critchley, an English teacher living in France, who from her home near Bordeaux managed to create an incredibly professional website, which more than anything else helped to keep those centrally involved in the battle informed as to what was going on. But the heroine whose experience did perhaps more than anyone's to bring home the Kafkaesque nature of this story was Janet Hughes.
The glory of what she did was that, as an environmental science teacher living in mid-Wales, she watched the crisis unfolding around her until eventually she decided to intervene herself - in a truly extraordinary and courageous way. The greatest single blunder of the government's response to the epidemic was to order the slaughter of some nine million healthy animals: the so-called 'pre-emptive cull'. The point, as many recognised at the time, was that the government simply had no legal power to do this. The Animal Health Act 1981 was quite specific. Animals could only be killed when they were either infected or had been directly exposed to infection. The whole point of the pre-emptive cull was that it was designed to kill animals which had not yet been exposed to the virus, to stop it spreading. The cull was thus a criminal act, on unprecedented scale. This was where Janet Hughes was inspired to the course of action which is the story of her book. In July 2001, when the epidemic was already long past its peak, the Welsh Assembly decided to round up and slaughter 20,000 sheep on the Brecon Beacons. Janet describes how she bought a small flock of these sheep, to entitle her to challenge in the courts the legality of what the Assembly was proposing. She sank her entire life savings on a legal action in which it seemed she had both the law and truth on her side. But then Kakfa took over.
Janet describes how Maff (the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) in London became so worried by the implications of her action that it took over the case from the Welsh Assembly. She describes her bizarre encounters with lawyers and with the court system. She describes how, through tireless research, she came across a document which showed that Maff's chief vet had falsified the evidence in claiming that many of the sheep on the Brecon Beacons were diseased. But for reasons never properly explained, she was not allowed to produce this damning evidence in court. A judge in the London High Court dismissed her claim, and she ended up facing a bill for costs from Maff of £17,000. It was a year later that I myself first picked up on Janet's story, following the ludicrous incident when two bailiffs arrived one morning at her home and prepared to remove her property, including the car she needed for her work and a toy jeep and quad bike belonging to her 12-year old son Matthew (whose support for his mother's stand had been one of her greatest sources of encouragement). This action by the 'Maffia' bailiffs went so far beyond what they were legally entitled to do that Janet's plight quickly blossomed into a cause celebre. Well-wishers sent money from all over the country.
The bailiffs were forced to back down. Eventually a highly embarrassed ministry (now renamed Defra, widely known as the 'Department for the Elimination of Farming and Rural Affairs') agreed to settle for a mere £4000: the sum contributed by all those who had been horrified by Janet's story. In September 2003 two law professors at Cardiff University, inspired by what Janet had done, produced a trenchant paper confirming that she was entirely correct in the point of law she had wanted to make. The government's culling policy was indeed illegal. In giving such supine support to the government, the courts had grievously blundered. I am delighted to introduce Janet's touching and chilling account of an episode which provides an invaluable epilogue to the story of that awful time. It was a drama which became a catastrophe - thanks to the incompetence of an arrogant, deceitful and corrupt government, as Janet's book so vividly brings home.