Silence at Ramscliffe

 

Foot & Mouth in Devon

 

When Nigel Lake telephoned his Uncle on the evening of 18th March to tell him that the cows had Foot and Mouth the news drove another nail in the coffin. The downturn in farming and the filthy wet weather were causing misery and for weeks the talk had centred on the threat of disease. Beaford, a North Devon parish to the east of the River Torridge, had been waiting in fear.

 

By now all confidence in the Government's ability to control the outbreak was lost. Whatever trust people had placed in the Ministry was in tatters, and rumour and counter rumour were rife. Across the North Devon countryside the pyres were being lit and the air was filled with the reek and the atmosphere of war. Indeed, everyday my neighbour on Dartmoor, who keeps a small flock of pedigree sheep, would relate yet another hushed story that he had heard on the now confused and deeply suspicious grapevine: 'A phial has gone missing from Pirbright. A golden handkerchief is available at a price and some farmers are deliberately infecting their stock. So and so had moved his sheep without a license in the middle of the night; he couldn't bear it, the foxes were eating his lambs. A dealer lending sheep caused that outbreak on Dartmoor. They reckon they were boosting the numbers to claim the subsidy.'

 

And the strain on my neighbour's face was beginning to show. Gone was his gentle and friendly sparkle, replaced by a shroud of unbelievable tiredness and worry. One morning he leaned out of his Landrover window at a group of us on the lane. 'Those dogs should be on a lead,' he grumbled, and then immediately drove off as if regretting his outburst. We murmured amongst ourselves, arguing his point but sympathetic to the cause.

 

My first day at Ramscliffe Farm in Beaford was a pleasant one, for after weeks of interminable rain the sun suddenly shone. When I got to the farmhouse Philip Lake and his father, Percy, were in good spirits. I had telephoned a few days before, explaining my wish to make a series of pictures about the crisis, and Philip said he was keen to meet me. He told me that his cousin's farm in Beaford, which neighboured his land, had gone down with the disease. They had already gone through a period of immense shock and were now resigned to the likelihood of either being the next to catch it or taken out on the contiguous cull. 'You come down boy, it will be good to see you.'

 

Farming is a responsible occupation for there are animals involved and they need you as much as you need them. For most farmers their welfare is paramount and no matter how bad the weather, how small the profit, there is a duty, coupled with pride, to see them right. Father and son showed me over the farm as they went about their business. Philip fetched a large round bale of straw on the fore-end loader whilst Percy fed the calves. Then together they worked through the yards, laying the straw down for bedding in the various sheds and cubicles. By late afternoon it was time to milk again. Percy went home, semi-retired now in a bungalow in the village, whilst Philip brought in the cows. As he milked for the second time that day I watched the proceedings and marvelled at the calm. Cows in milk are a picture of contentment.

 

I arranged my next visit for Friday. In between the visits a valuation was made of all the stock on the farm. It was now only a matter of time and, although official observation recorded no disease, the outcome was inevitable. Percy and his wife Roma had volunteered to do the milk round to take the strain off Philip and I agreed to join them at 7.30 am. It was a cold grey morning but as yet dry. I raced around Beaford on foot as Roma read out the orders and Percy dropped off the plastic bottles on each doorstep, occasionally getting it wrong and suffering a reprimand from the delivery jeep! Soon it was 9 o'clock and, satisfied with my pictures, I drove down to the farm. Philip had finished his mornings milking and had just received a phone call from MAFF. 'Its happening today. They're coming at 11 o'clock to cull the animals.'

Philip had spent the night away. Divorced for some time, he had got back into the swing of the bachelor life but never shunned his duty to his cows. He was visibly tired and smoking incessantly, but was also calling on some inner strength, braced and ready. He asked me to stay, suggesting that MAFF would think I was his farmhand who happened to be away on holiday. I laughed at the suggestion. I was wearing a brand new pair of overalls, which I had bought for the assignment, putting them through the recommended hot wash each night when I arrived home. A pair of wellingtons and a flat cap may have completed the picture but my attire looked far too new and not altogether convincing! Impersonation was not a comfortable option. I said that I would play it by ear.

 

The phone rang piercing the uncomfortable quiet. It was his bank manager. ' No, no, I'm fine Janet. Quite honestly it's a relief. It's impossible to farm at the moment what with this weather and all the restrictions.' They chatted away and I made some more coffee.

 

Finishing his second cup Philip sprang into action. 'I've got to empty that slurry tank before they come else they'll have me.' I assured him it would be the last thing on their minds. He started the tractor and fetched the spreader and in no time at all had sucked out the tank and sprayed the liquid onto the field in front of the farmhouse. Happy to be working he then set about cleaning the yard of the gallons of urine and muck that had accumulated over the last few days. Restrictions had meant that the stock were hanging around the immediate environs of the farm and that, coupled with a high water table, was causing misery for both farmer and beast. Ramscliffe was drowning in slurry.

 

The slaughterman was the first to arrive, a tall bald headed man from Launceston in Cornwall. He was well versed in soothing away a farmer's fears and anxiety and soon put Philip at ease. He was less sure of me, spotting my camera lying on the kitchen table. He chewed the fat and told us how he played the stock market, and how it wasn't too clever at the moment. He had volunteered for this, he said, as it was good money. Soon the rest of the team arrived headed by a vet from a practice in East Devon. There was an AI man who lived in Essex and a young man who had just finished a training course somewhere up country with MAFF. ('It's my first day on this,' he explained to me later).

 

We all shook hands and I asked the vet for a word in private. I didn't want to embarrass him or myself in front of the others. Inside the kitchen I came clean, explaining that I wasn't Philip's farmhand, but a photographer here to make a record for the Beaford Archive. I showed him my cameras and a file of paperwork, in it a letter confirming my commission. He was surprised and drew breath. It was clear that I had presented him with a dilemma. 'Look,' I said, 'you have two options. You can tell me to clear off and I will go home right now, or you can let me stay and I will chip in and help. But this needs documenting. We've seen enough of burning pyres. I'm not from the newspapers and I don't have an angle. I'm simply here to record a piece of history.'

 

There was a pause and then without looking up he snapped at me. 'OK, you can stay, but I want you in white overalls and that camera wrapped in plastic.' I felt a flush of relief followed by an awkward feeling of joy. Being honest had paid off.

 

In need of the regulation overalls the vet suddenly realised he had forgotten to seal off the lane and he raced me up the hill to his car. I tried to strike up a conversation about the merits of the contiguous cull but his brow furrowed. 'You have to look at the bigger picture' was all he could offer. He was in work mode now and the job in hand required all his concentration. I donned the overalls, photographed him sealing the track with the official blue and white tape and then marched back down to the farm in silence. Threatening skies were producing the first few spots of rain.

 

Philip was in the yard with the others helping to tie together a system of gates. He whispered to me that he would help move the cattle but he didn't want to watch anything being killed. The heavens opened and the recently cleaned yard shone like an olive green mirror as a thin layer of residue muck diluted and spread. The milking cows were brought in first, confused at the strange break in routine. They assembled in the yard in front of the milking parlour and were then coaxed inside with a little food and into the stalls. One by one each cow was sedated, released and gently ushered out and along to the covered silage clamp, empty now of last year's harvest. Philip brought clean straw in a vain attempt to give them something to lie on, but the now heavy rain swelled the already over-brimming farm springs and pools of water gathered on the concrete floor.

 

As the clamp filled with sedated cows I was shocked to see one cow walk over to another lying motionless on the floor. She sniffed for recognition, staring at the body as if in disbelief. It was chillingly human. Another came in and did exactly the same and they both stood there rooted to the spot. Perhaps it was simply the effect of the sedative but it occurred to me that we so easily dismiss the notion that animals have feelings.

 

When all the cows were sedated the slaughter began. One by one the captive bolt gun was raised to each head, and the trigger released. There was a dull crack, a rush of visible gas from the steel barrel and the cow slumped to the floor, followed by a few moments of twitching as she expelled her dying breath.

 

The vet and the AI man followed on behind, inserting a blue rod into the hole made by the gun into the brain, and pushing down into the spinal cord. A vigorous stir and it was all over. As each death was confirmed the carcass was marked with a blue dye, sprayed from an aerosol.

 

As the day dragged on it was the turn of the in-calf heifers. Again Philip helped round them up and drove them into the cattle crush to be sedated, but as they were being killed he disappeared indoors. By late afternoon there were rumbles of needing a break and I volunteered to make everyone a cup of tea. The weather improved and there was talk of light at the end of the tunnel. Philip sneaked off into the village for some tobacco and asked me to cover for him. When he came back, unnoticed, they started on the calves. Philip darted back indoors. I watched as they were led across the yard, the last one having to be carried. I had seen enough. I couldn't photograph them being shot. I wandered about the farm in a daze.

 

I have often wondered why so many war photographs are technically poor. The images often suffer from too much contrast or are badly focussed. The end result is simply raw. Let me tell you that using a camera in such circumstances is no easy task. I am used to photographing everyday life, its ups as well as downs, but this was surreal and I pressed the shutter all day long as if in a dream.

 

Since then, as the months have passed, I've been able to look at the pictures in a different light. The story needed telling from a human perspective and despite the horror I am now strangely pleased with the result. The rights and wrongs of the contiguous cull are yet to be debated, but there is no doubt that the Foot & Mouth crisis has highlighted all that is going wrong in farming. It seems, often through no fault of their own, that farmers are pushing too hard, tied into a system that demands that they produce more to survive.

 

But for me the day is remembered as one of unbelievable waste, a sickening solution to what many believe was an unnecessary crisis in the countryside. And because of it Ramscliffe, a small, good, typical North Devon farm, has joined the ranks of the silent.

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright: Chris Chapman, September 2001

 

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