Sheep on Trial

Elsewhere, I have written about the bizarre situation in times past of putting animals on trial for 'crimes' committed against humanity. And it is easy to scoff. Look at how they reacted in the Middle Ages! how frightening life must have been before we discovered civilisation and education. Look how much we have developed since our ignorant and suspicious forefathers prosecuted mice and pigs. And we can sit back and chuckle, comforted by how superior we are today. To think we, here in the 21st century could be so stupid as to put a farm animal on trial! And yet, that is precisely what is happening at this very moment.

Government quangos in the form of the Spongiform Encephalopothy Advisory Committee (SEAC) and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) are actively involved in pursuing the persecution of British sheep and DEFRA are blindly following their lead. There is a long standing and determined effort to prove that sheep suffer from BSE. It matters not a jot that despite large sums of tax payers' money being thrown at finding evidence for the prosecution (you may remember the testing of sheep brains that turned out to be those of cows) none has yet been found to stand up in court. The very fact that those in authority keep making statements sublimely linking sheep with BSE and introducing measures that assume BSE is in the sheep population, means that eventually the media and the public believe it, even when substantive investigation has failed to find the evidence. Tell a lie often enough and it eventually becomes a truth - the sort of propaganda methods perfected by the likes of Hitler and Stalin.

In much the same way, it is now generally accepted that BSE is directly linked to vCJD. I would just like to remind you of Stephen Dorell's statement to the House of Commons on that fateful day, 20 March 1996. "There remains no scientific proof that BSE can be transmitted to man by beef, but the [Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory] Committee have concluded that the most likely explanation at present is that these cases are linked to exposure to BSE before the offal ban in 1989." Unless I have missed a major news story since, that situation remains the same today - no proof. Yet still we have the Over Thirty Month Scheme and countless other measures that daily disrupt livestock and food industries.

But back to the sheep. Of course Government is going to do everything in its power to protect human safety. Thus if it perceives a risk through BSE it must take whatever measures it thinks necessary. But is that risk commensurate with, say, the daily risk of fatal injuries in motor accidents? Or of contracting AIDS through drug use or sexual practices? Or of combating the disease risk of smoking other than printed warnings and partial advertising bans?

Gradually, controls and restrictions are being introduced that, whilst each in itself may not seem important, the cumulative effect builds up until it has become a major barrier to the future of sheep farming in Britain. The removal of heads from sheep, the removal of all spinal cords from all adult sheep, the FSA's recommendations to Brussels to ban the use of sheep intestines in natural sausages, the National Scrapie Plan.

Ah yes, the National Scrapie Plan! How the commercial sheep sector embraced this bold proposal. Soon, we will have our islands full of sheep immune to Scrapie and we can then export them anywhere! A licence to print money. All we have to do is follow the politicians blindly. Exclude the bad alleles (the genes accused of Scrapie - Adrian) - VRQ and the like - and be left only with the good ones - good old ARR and its mates - and all will be hunky-dory. Now I'm no scientist and I make no claims to any expert knowledge and thus I probably tend to ask stupid questions and I have done so on this very issue. Genetics is one of those 'new' sciences that means that there are exciting new discoveries every week with the possibilities of fighting disease, eliminating disorders and feeding the world on giant salmon and GM maize. But do we know enough about these alleles to understand what else we might be doing to the sheep by removing certain ones? I have spoken to commercial farmers who have put aside their crop of ram lambs with perfect alleles to choose the next generation of sires. But they have said in other circumstances there wasn't a sheep amongst them worth keeping! In other words had they selected by eye alone, none of the ARR/ARR lambs would have survived.

And when I asked an official from the Government's Chief Scientist's Department - (more stupid questions!) - how many different variants of Scrapie there were, the answer was at least three and maybe as many as 19. And when I asked if we knew how the good and the bad alleles influenced these variations, answers came there none. So we have a plan, so far voluntary but soon to become obligatory, that links a disease that has been around for hundreds of years to a recently identified horrible disease affecting small numbers of humans - that is attempting to eliminate certain genetic elements from sheep in this country without fully understanding the implications of so doing.

For all our scientific advances and increasing 'civilisation', we are still more than capable of putting a dumb animal on trial when we become frightened about something we don't understand. First the cow and now the sheep. At least our forefathers gave the animal a fair trial where all the evidence was presented and a defence was heard. Today, we use incomplete science and innuendo with no one to represent the plaintiff - but on the evidence collected by the prosecution, would a jury of 12 good men and true find against the creature?

Richard Lutwyche, Editor of the ARK - The Journal of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.