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March 6 2006 Veterinary Times

Silence of the lambs, calves, sheep, cattle and mathematicians

Bob Michell, BVetMed, BSc, PhD, DSc, MRCVS

REMEMBER, and understand.
March; lambs leaping among the shining tussocks of young grass. But it was not so just five years ago.

In the name of veterinary disease control, we were about to embark on the greatest unnecessary slaughter of healthy animals in the history of our profession. It cost £10 - 12 billion and involved, to the European Parliament, the slaughter of 10 million animals.

Since fewer than 25 per cent of the pre-emptively culled premises were actually infected, and since the consequent mass killing probably impeded control, the money wasted was of the order of £1 - 2 billion: say £100 per household. That sort of money could have financed the MRC’s research expenditure throughout those five years.

There are those who still argue that it was money well spent – though not when given the opportunity to argue their case in detail against the mounting peer - reviewed published evidence that it is mistaken.

Five months ago, the following challenge appeared in Veterinary Times (October 24, 2005)
To anyone who still believes that the contiguous cull was instrumental (ie essential, not just an adjunct) in bringing the 2001 FMD outbreak under control to explain how its consequences – the downturn in the epidemic – preceded its introduction” together with the opportunity to respond in 1,000 - 2,000 words.

Should have been a doddle for any proponent with a modicum of self belief. In the event, the silence has been deafening; perhaps they were unusually busy with their Christmas shopping. There is still a chance, before the scramble to buy Easter eggs.

Guilt with deferred sentence

It is said that we have acquired a litigious culture, yet the great prophylactic bloodbath remains one of those things, just one of those foolish things. It is not as if we do not know whose responsibility it was: according to the Anderson Inquiry, one of the three initiated by the Government, “The Prime Minister said that during the major part of the crisis he, the Prime Minister, was in personal charge ... he always saw himself in overall charge”. Sounds very much like openness and transparency to me: all we now lack is accountability. Meanwhile, he is busy seeking his footprint in history. What with that and the situation in Iraq, I would have thought he had already found it.

Perhaps Mr Cameron could help to ensure that it is indelible. His party considered the idea of a proper FMD inquiry during the last election campaign – but they were over-concerned with the geographical source.

Custodians of animal care

Whatever the political motivation, this was enacted in the name of veterinary disease control. It was, therefore, done inescapably, in my name and, if you graduated before 2001, in yours. Do you feel proud of that among the cocktails, in the pub, on the dinner party circuit, over coffee cups at a scientific gathering? Or do you feel relieved that at least, in the interim, our governing body has done ... well, what exactly, about it? I seem to remember that we “Promise above all that ... my constant endeavour will be to ensure the welfare of the animals committed to my care.“ The italics, as well as the quotation, come from the RCVS Guide to Professional Conduct, on the first page about the responsibilities of a veterinary surgeon.

Those animals were in the care of a huge number of veterinary surgeons, acting on Government instruction, frequently against their conscience, wisdom or experience

Despite Council’s decision to seek a proper inquiry into these events, nothing has been achieved; the mood seems to be that it’s better to keep our heads down and hope that a very benevolent Veterinary Surgeons Act will result. I’d vote for Harry Potter for president before I believed that.

Discretion is seldom the better part of valour; it is more often the excuse for timidity. I would like to suggest an addition to the Guide to Professional Conduct – namely that animals should never be slaughtered en masse without sound veterinary arguments. My dictionary defines care as “feel concern or interest, do all that is required”. In my opinion, where the welfare of national flocks and herds entrusted to the care of our profession during that supreme animal disease crisis is concerned, the RCVS has fallen far short of that definition.

Ostriches in the desert of truth

The word still echoes in the corridors of power that the vets couldn’t control the epidemic until the mathematicians and the modellers saved the national bacon – and the summer election of 2001. Yet extensive evidence to the contrary was cited in Speculum last April and more has appeared since.

As recently as last August, a New Scientist editorial declared that the Government was left with “only one option, the dreadful slaughter of six million animals”. Clearly they did not approve, yet even this journal was unaware of the evidence to substantiate its misgivings. To their great credit, Sheila Crispin, Nick Honhold, Hugh Miller, Mike Thrusfield and Nick Taylor replied that the “one option” was “the product of mathematical modelling during the epidemic which was indeed an untested and ad hoc approach ... it was this very process that resulted in much of the extensive slaughter by instigating the automatic preemptive culling of all susceptible livestock on contiguous farms.... This policy was not, as stated at the time ‘the only option’... analyses have vindicated the traditional policies and demonstrated that the peak of the epidemic had passed before the extensive contiguous culling policies could have taken effect” (New Scientist, September 10, 2005).

Magnus Linklater wrote in the Times (February 18, 2004) that “mad cull disease still rages and logic is no cure for it.” He also reminded us of the “deep emotional scars on farming families throughout the affected countryside”. But Mr Linklater attributed the allegiance to slaughter to the fact that “too many reputations are at stake for a climbdown – yet. Sooner, or later, however, the truth will out.” Like many lambs, it will need veterinary assistance.

Epilogue – and a plea for action

Too late, too late; we have moved on. It is never too late to look back and ensure that history is properly written, that credit is given where it is due, and that the reasons for expensive disasters are properly identified. We do it with all other forms of national disaster and we do it with all other forms of crime. And we pay for everything the RCVS does and elect most of its council.

Those of us who are members of BVA and its divisions should be pressing it to stir RCVS from its apathy, and to censure it if that fails: someone should be the custodian of the collective conscience of the profession. But there is something far simpler, with far greater impact, that all of us could do.

There are more than 10,000 vets. On Monday, March 27, at 11am, there should be a two-minute silence, in every surgery, classroom or stable, on every farm, to mark the fifth anniversary of the implementation of the contiguous cull: to commemorate the unnecessary death of millions of animals and the unnecessary suffering of those on whose farms they lived, or whose livelihoods evaporated in the smoking pyres amidst our green and pleasant land. And we should explain how unpardonable it was and how unaccountable is the subsequent lack of political concern or accountability.

“Lambs could not forgive, nor worms forget.”