Like lambs to the slaughter

It resulted in the deaths of millions of animals; cost the Treasury £2bn; threatened the jobs of thousands of people and destroyed a centuries-old way of life... As the anniversary of the foot-and-mouth outbreak approaches, Tim Adams asks: cock-up or conspiracy?

Tim Adams

Driving up to Cumbria, almost a year after the foot-and-mouth epidemic officially began, I was listening to two stories on the local radio station. It sounded like somebody had asked the programme's editor what he wanted first: the good news or the bad news. The lead item stated the foot-and-mouth crisis had officially ended, that the international restrictions had been lifted and Britain could start exporting meat. The other item added simply that the figures for the numbers of stock slaughtered had been revised. For six months we'd been told it was 4m head of cattle and sheep. Now, it seemed, the total number was more like 11m. This statistic was presented as if it would not really come as a surprise to anyone. The motorway to the northern Lake District runs along a low escarpment called the Penrith spur. While I was wondering how these two pieces of information might square up, I was looking out, too, for a particular heart-shaped wood on the lower flank of this hillside. Hilary Wilson, whose family farm is here, had told me this landmark was the easiest way of finding her. After that, she said, you just drop down off the motorway, double back underneath, go through the viaduct, over the bridge, round a sharp bend, and the farm was down the tiny lane on the right.

This short journey, with a few wrong turnings, felt nevertheless a very long way from the sweeping certainties of the M6. I'd asked to talk to Hilary Wilson about how she'd survived this awful year. But when we sit down, it's clear that it's not quite as simple as that. 'Don't listen to what you hear on the radio,' she says. 'It's not really ended for the people in this valley. Not yet.'

When I ask her to explain, it's as if she doesn't quite know where to begin. She looks around her spare, neat kitchen. In one corner there are three bags full of wool. 'The way we farm,' she says, 'is the way people have always farmed here. We keep a family of sheep and they keep us. We have some cattle as well, but essentially to live this lifestyle you've got to be committed to that family of sheep. That's the key thing in what you are doing. It's quite biblical, isn't it? A vocation.'

She tells me a bit about her husband and son, who are out on the fells, shows me a photo of them with their Rough Fell sheep. 'What has happened with the legislation over the last few years is that there is no longer any value attached to our way of life. It means that as a mother you are saying to your son: "Do you want a job with no money, no time off and no respect?" For the generation of our age, in their fifties, it's too late to change. But the next generation won't take it on. And if that's threatened, then everything goes.

'I suppose,' she says, smiling sadly, 'we're just another dying breed. In the valley, I think there are three men under 30 in full-time farming, in about 14 miles. So the prospect is really watching the community die, anyway. And that was before foot and mouth.' She goes on to detail the particular horrors of the past 12 months, offers tales of incompetence on a grand scale, stories of intimidation of farmers pressured to co-operate in the 'voluntary cull' of their healthy, irreplaceable flock, and how it was impossible to get any clear information. 'You felt you'd complied with the destruction of your sheep, and betrayed that bond you had,' she says. 'It is a huge and massive betrayal, and it feels very wrong. And that won't ever go away.' Wilson then jokes a little about her day job as a nurse at the local hospital, about her efforts at keeping hens, her hopes for her orchard. And finally, as RAF fighters from the nearby airbase pass seemingly yards over the farmhouse, she talks of the new Animal Health Bill now going through a reading in the House of Lords, of how it enshrines in law the enormous powers assumed by Defra (the new Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) over the past few months: the power to come on to any farmer's land and slaughter his stock, with no obligation to full compensation. When she mentions this, she speaks not so much with anger but with fear. 'I think we are very frightened of the government,' she says. 'It would be possible to come to terms with the depravity and destruction of what went on if you could see a future. But really we just live with this gut-wrenching terror of what they might do next.'

When I came to leave Wilson's farm and drive out of the valley with its few remaining pockets of sheep, it struck me that it was a surprising, shocking thing for a woman like her - robust, cheerful, kind, industrious - to be so plainly frightened of the powers that be. But the more people I spoke to among the hill farmers of Cumbria, the more I had the sense that this sentiment was the overriding legacy of the past year. Before I came up here, I'd expected to be confronted by bitterness and anger and sadness, but not really by fear.

Hilary Wilson's was the first of many such stories I heard in the days that followed. Hill farmers are by nature isolated. When I called them on the phone there often seemed a mixture of wariness and unease as much at the technology as at my questions. But many said they were too scared to want to talk to me, that they didn't want to get involved. One man said he lived in fear of them coming for the rest of his flock if he spoke out about the mistakes that had been made in controlling the spread of the disease. Others believed that their phones were being tapped. It seemed they felt like they were still living in a state of siege.

In a way, this paranoia should not, perhaps, be so surprising. For many months over the past year, many of these farmers were stuck on their farms, effectively under house arrest to the epidemic. In the absence of any firm information about latest policy, and watching television broadcasts which often seemed to blame them for the spread of the disease, there was little to do but swap stories with friends and neighbours, try to discover which way the outbreaks were heading, keep a map in their heads of how that might affect them. BT, I am told, must have made a fortune from the epidemic, but no one else up here did, apart from the slaughtermen.

In the early weeks, when the authorities were seemingly refusing to recognise the scale of the problem in Cumbria and farmers were waiting to discover their fate (which in some cases depended on which way the wind was blowing), some people took it on themselves to give an outlet to some of these stories, to try to piece together an overall picture of what was happening in the remoter outposts. Caz Graham, a producer and presenter at BBC Radio Cumbria, was one. She ran a phone-in from 10pm till midnight every night, and was inundated with callers; a farmer's daughter herself, she'd sit in her booth, tears rolling down her cheeks.

Another who sought to find out what was really happening was Suzanne Greenhill. The Greenhills live in Cockermouth, Wordsworth's birthplace, and to reach them you drive past the beautiful snow-capped peaks of Skiddaw and Blencathra. Suzanne is part of a family that established the first livestock auction in the area, of which her husband Peter is now chairman. She got involved, she says, because she felt people weren't able to sift out fact from gossip.

'The hill farmers were used to coming to the market every fortnight and discussing what was going on. There were always rumours, but in the give and take of the auction floor, they could work out what was true and what not. When the market was closed in March, this forum was removed. And so, because they were so isolated from each other, they took a lot of what they heard as gospel.'

The Greenhills sought to separate some of the facts from the fiction. Suzanne made 800 calls to farms to establish how many of the native, 'hefted' sheep were being taken out from the fells. She wrote to anyone she could think of - Prince Charles, the farming minister Nick Brown, newspaper editors - to raise awareness of the situation. She also tried to source some of the more virulent horror stories about the way the cull was being conducted. Like many others, she found herself on the phone every day from dawn to dusk, and the more she investigated, the more she discovered that a lot of what they were hearing was true.

There was the story about how Maff (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) officials were using maps so old they did not have the main A66 marked; of how there were several reports of odd contingencies being made for an epidemic long before the outbreak began; of how farms were being taken out because officials had misread grid references; of how a man who lived in a terraced house in Newcastle received a letter saying that they were coming to kill his sheep; of how local vets were routinely replaced by 'imported' ones because they refused in some instances to comply with the killing; of how dirty vehicles carrying carcasses were moving through clean areas; of how some cows were 'hung' from JCBs and others were shot in the buttocks 'to bring them down'. She kept lists, too, of the more comical directives: the farmer who was asked by one helpline assistant what sex his bull was; another who was told that he could handle wool as long as it hadn't been near any sheep.

'What I was most worried about,' she says 'was that in all the incompetence, through the contiguous cull, there would be no sheep left anywhere on the fells. In the official figures, the only farms that were included were those that had infected animals. Around here, there was one infected farm, and 24 others were taken out as dangerous contacts.'

As she details these events, her husband produces the documentary evidence that supports many of them. They have charts comparing the response times during the 1967 outbreak to those of last year (to begin with, infinitely quicker); extensive research on why vaccination would have stopped the problem in its tracks; data that shows that of a sample of 720,000 culled animals, only 327 showed traces of the disease, a percentage of 0.045, as compared to the 15 per cent ratio claimed by Defra. They have scientific reports from all over the world about the inadequacy of a slaughter policy, files and floppy disks with case studies of bad practice. They've become self-taught experts in epidemiology, and they are not alone. 'Many people started collecting this information because they cared about what was happening,' Peter Greenhill says. 'And they could not get it from anywhere else. Through the internet, we could also share it. This must be the best-documented disaster this country has ever seen. All we want to do now is to hand it over to a proper independent public inquiry.'

The Greenhills are not alone in this demand. Without exception, everyone I spoke to in Cumbria - from brigadiers to ostrich farmers - suggested that until the full truth of what happened last year is in the open, it will be impossible to move on or learn from mistakes. Next week, a full year after the epidemic began, a great deal of the evidence assembled by the Greenhills and others will be presented before a judicial review in London to try to force the hand of the government.

Up until now, the public statements made by ministers about the most widespread epidemic of this disease the world has seen in modern times have been elliptical, to say the least. Alun Michael, the short-lived party placeman in the Welsh Assembly and now government spokesman on rural affairs, told the House of Commons in a remarkable speech on 4 July last year that it would be 'irresponsible to bandy about words such as "public inquiry" which have specific meanings. The use of such terminology is not casual and the worst possible outcome would be to end up with a long-delayed and bureaucratic inquiry.' Sceptics might have noted his own 'casual' use of the words 'long-delayed' and 'bureaucratic' here, and replaced them with, say, 'efficient' and 'open', and then considered to whom this would be the 'worst possible outcome'.

Margaret Beckett, in contemplating a crisis which even her own conservative estimates suggest cost the Treasury £2bn (the equivalent of a penny on the basic rate of income tax) and which some say cost five times more, which threatened the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people, which delayed a general election, and which caused the abolition of a government department (Maff) and brought into being her own new empire (Defra), sought, in the spirit of the times, to accentuate the positive. In rejecting claims from The Guardian that a fully transparent inquiry was almost mandatory in these circumstances to restore public confidence, she said: 'What is important is not just to identify what we could and should do better next time, but also to highlight the many things that went well.'

Peter Allen, a 17th-generation farmer, has recently become the third member of his family to receive an OBE from this queen for services to hill farming. As NFU representative for the Cumbrian farmers he was often at the sharp end of policy making in the past year, and though he can point to the Herculean efforts of colleagues and friends, he can't really suggest too many things that 'went well', at least in those crucial first weeks.

'It was just so badly organised at the start. There seemed no contingency planning and the resources just were not there: human, mechanical, physical or financial. I would point the finger above all at a lack of leadership. There was no one throughout the entire civil service or government who the chief vet up here, or any of us, could turn to, and who would say, "If you need that I'll get it."'

After the Prime Minister got directly involved, he suggests, and appointed Brigadier Alex Birtwhistle to oversee the clean-up, things improved markedly, but by then the battle had already been lost. 'If we'd had those resources on 23 February, when there were still animals moving, and implemented a proper slaughter policy, we'd have won by the end of March,' he says. 'And those decisions should have been made automatically. I still can't understand how they were not.'

While Peter Allen sticks firmly to his cock-up theories, there are plenty of people in Cumbria who make the easy jump from there to conspiracy. Faced with the fact that the government seemed willing to lavish its billions on an inept slaughter policy which was enforced by the army and protected by the Official Secrets Act (which all Maff employees had to sign), and in the absence of any willingness to investigate what went wrong, there are many who will happily believe there were other motives at work.

Talk to many hill farmers in the region, and you will hear the figure 16m. That is the number, you will be told, that an EU debate in 1998 threw up in relation to British overstocking of sheep (this being a conspiracy theory, no one is quite sure which debate this was). Hugh and Liz Lowther, for example, who own 5,000 acres south of Penrith, farmed by tenants, both believe that the level of incompetence showed by Maff and Defra could not simply have been unwitting, that there must have been more pernicious forces involved. The epidemic was seized on, they believe, by a government under pressure from Europe and the Treasury to depopulate the fells of sheep; the slaughter policy was conceived and stubbornly held to with this end in mind, and in the knowledge that the sheep in large part could not be replaced.

The Lowthers' evidence to support this claim is an odd mixture of paranoia about global powerbroking - 'Seattle is the same argument' - and observation of what went on around them. 'The vets were all going from farm to farm to farm and back to Carlisle,' Liz says, 'no problem. The slaughter teams were making illegal movements all the time. But the farmers weren't allowed to move a muscle off their farms to defend their stock.'

'Take the example of a farm just up the road,' says her husband. 'The vets had been and tested his stock and all was well. And then the next day a Defra guy came to tell him that the vet who had tested him had just come from a dirty farm. So they had to shoot all his cattle and sheep outright. You're telling me that was just inefficiency? Everything was directed toward the idea that they wanted to remove every single sheep from these fells. There was no cull in the National Park, you notice, because they need those sheep for the tourists. But out here on the rough fells, the only farms that are left are the ones that resisted. And once the Animal Health Bill is in place, and they've got some flimsy evidence for a link between scrapie and CJD, they'll come again for those.'

While I'm in Cumbria, there is a conference at Penrith's new Rheged Discovery Centre, an odd Tolkienesque place which pretends it's been built into bare rock and waterfalls. The conference is about 'helping farmers to help themselves', and it begins with a man from the HSBC bank tapping a microphone and wondering if he can be heard in the Pennine Gallery. It turns out he can't. But then, of course, these farmers are used to problems with communication.

The keynote speaker at the conference is Lord Haskins, the multimillionaire maker of ready meals, former chairman of Northern Foods, and the co-ordinator of government task forces on farming, the NHS, rural regeneration, and likely pretty much everything else. Lord Haskins achieves the rare trick of managing to address his packed audience of Cumbrian farmers for 45 minutes without once mentioning the legacy of foot-and-mouth disease. He is instead, in common with Labour's rural-recovery team, looking to the future. And as he describes that future, I'm oddly struck by how closely it resembles some of the wilder fears and predictions of Viscount Lowther.

Cumbrian hill farming, Haskins suggests, needs to be ready to take its place in the global markets. He talks a good deal about 'agricommodities' and not at all about sheep and lambs. He talks of the 'problems' of Britain being a world leader in animal welfare. He explains how our livelihoods these days are in the hands of Alan Greenspan. He talks of a generation of consumers, who want perfect ovoid potatoes free of scabs, and who see supermarkets as their heroes. He despairs a little at the realities of the Common Agricultural Policy, the overstocked fells and the expansion of the EU, which will introduce 7m smallholders from Poland alone. And he demands his audience to face up to what they are going to do about all these new realities (by now, it has to be said, most of them look like they are not in a position to do very much). The peer then concludes, of course, by saying how optimistic he is for farming in this area - but he's fooling no one.

The question-and-answer session is a fairly low-key affair, as if the farmers are resigned to their fate. Towards the end one man near the back suggests, 'Whatever we do, let's not keep putting people down.' For a moment I wonder if Lord Haskins is going to venture a joke in reply about a voluntary cull of hill farmers, but perhaps he thinks better of it.

In the absence of an independent inquiry into the events of the last year, what the government has tried to get away with is a series of small-scale reports from their own appointees, which may or may not be for public consumption. The first of these, Sir Donald Curry's 'vision' for agriculture, published a fortnight ago, is very much in the spirit of Lord Haskins's overview: it gazes resolutely to a future that bears little resemblance to, say, much of the past. And it seeks to replace the idea of British hill farming with a series of abstract nouns.

One of these, of course, is diversification. In practice, as hill farmers desperate to make ends meet will tell you, for small family farms diversification is difficult to achieve. Not everyone would want to stay in a bed and breakfast under the M6, for example. And even in the more touristed parts of the Lake District only a rare few family farmers have managed a viable balance between tourism and stockrearing. One of these is the Peet family, who have taken to keeping ostriches alongside their cattle and sheep in the Eden Valley, east of Penrith. When I go to talk to Karen Peet, who runs the visitor attraction there, I'm struck by a couple of things: first, how keen the ostriches are to peck human hands and ears (you don't get that with sheep), and secondly how incongruous they look among the soft hills. This may be one future, but it doesn't look like the future.

The report also recommends that farmers join together to sell produce locally. (Hugh Lowther is trying to advocate this among his tenants, wants to establish a series of co-operative abattoirs, but that is blocked by legislation and mostly, he says, his farmers just want to return to the way things were, 'and wait for the next time, lambs to the slaughter.') Still, the main thrust of Curry's report does not concern farming at all: rather, it suggests removing subsidies based on head of livestock, and giving them instead for what is called 'custodianship of the environment'.

The conspiracy theorists see this as depopulation by other means. And even realists like Peter Allen find it sinister: 'We're not in the park-keeping business. If they want us to forget about the farming aspect of it I'm going to turn around and say, "Get yourself a bloody gardener; I'm going to get another job." We're not looking to make fortunes here - the average income for a hill farmer in the year before foot and mouth was £5,000, and you can earn that part-time stacking shelves in Sainsbury's - but we want to be allowed to do what we have always done, and that includes maintaining the environment for the tourist industry, but primarily it is working with our animals.'

Following Lord Haskins on to the stage at Rheged was a woman from the RSPB, which has been a key advisor to Curry. Hedgerow-bird populations are one of the indicators in Defra's Orwellian 'quality of life' targets, by which it sets great store, and the RSPB thus suddenly finds itself able to dictate one future to farmers. The woman explained this New World Order to her resolutely polite audience with the help of slides dotted with lapwings, and full of exhortations to look at farms 'in a holistic way' and to 'explore the concept of a National Envelope', which incorporated, well, I suppose pretty much everything.

One of the stumbling blocks to this glowing future she said, though, was 'culture'. This she glossed brightly as an unwillingness among local farming families to change the habits of a lifetime, or perhaps several lifetimes. As she explained this theory, I was reminded of something Hilary Wilson had said when I went out to her farm. It was her response to a question that many people asked her: why, in the face of all the difficulties of their life, did they stay there? 'I've thought about this a lot,' she said. 'And I suppose it's because we believe one of the most fulfilling things you can do with your life is to live in a relationship with the land, with the seasons, the plants, and the animals. If you do this properly you're not guardian of nature, as such, you are part of it.' Perhaps, it seemed, someone should explain to the Wilsons why, in 'agri-environmental' terms, that also means you are part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.