The new haves and have-nots
The Times: Times 2

Feb 1


Some farmers who lost all their stock to foot-and-mouth have become surprisingly wealthy. Others, apparently unscathed, have lost everything

Florence Bell is a white-haired lady who is waiting for a bus in Heddon-on-the-Wall when I stop to ask her how to get to the pig farm. She does not ask what pig farm. She, like everyone else in this suburban village close to Newcastle, knows exactly what I mean. She offers to take me there herself. On the way we pass a bit of Hadrian's Wall. It is a tourist attraction, a World Heritage Site, but it cannot compete with a pig farm now.

Burnside Farm is much closer to suburbia than I had thought, the first of many farms along a twisty road that crawls under the busy A69 and heads on up into oblivion. Bobby Waugh used to keep 527 pigs there, and it is thought that the initial pathogens of the foot-and-mouth virus came up this road almost exactly a year ago in scraps that were made into swill.

The virus, identified as the Pan Asian O strain, had a much longer journey. Scientists believe that it could have come from any of several countries, including South Africa, and that it was carried in illegally imported meat. It was the first foot-and-mouth to hit this country since 1981. That was a small outbreak on the Isle of Wight. There would be no such luck this time.

As a species, pigs are notoriously infectious when it comes to foot-and-mouth. Within a week or so the virus had spread on the wind to sheep on a farm some five miles away. But sheep, unlike pigs and cattle, show little outward signs of the disease. In the next few weeks infected sheep and pigs were sent to market or to slaughter. By the time lesions were noticed on sows at an Essex abattoir on February 19, it is thought that the disease had already travelled to 43 locations.

If you come to stand on Birks Road and look at Burnside Farm in the cold light of a winter's day, it is hard to conjure up a silver lining. The Government's figures show that 6.6 million animals have been slaughtered because of foot-and-mouth, and that does not include all piglets, calves and lambs. Ten thousand farms had animals slaughtered and 140,000 farms were affected by restrictions. Here, where it all began, Waugh has given up his tenancy and moved back to Sunderland. He faces 22 animal welfare charges and says he is being made "a scapegoat".

There are no animals at Burnside Farm now and all you can hear is the disconsolate barking of somebody else's dogs. It has taken nearly a year to resolve a dispute over who should disinfect the farm. Work has now started and the site is festooned with red "Foot and Mouth, No Entry" signs.

There is a noticeable pong in the air. "It is a bit ripe," admits one of the workers. It is a good word, ripe, and far too full of promise for this place.

When I ask city people about foot-and-mouth, they tell me that it has made farmers rich. Anyway, they add, farmers are subsidy junkies who say they are poor but drive shiny new Land Rovers. Many people see foot-and-mouth, like BSE before it, as an agent in some kind of medieval morality play. Farming practices have become too intensive and the universe has struck back. You rarely get the feeling - as you would in, say, France or the United States - that farmers are part of a way of life.

This antagonism is acknowledged by farmers. They say that if cats and dogs had been affected by the disease, vaccination would have been introduced - and pronto. But, in the main, farmers' wrath is reserved for the Government. "The Government has made it clear that we are totally expendable," says one farmer's wife as she stands in her cold front room, her red, rough hands gripping each other. "They want to cull us."

The conspiracy theory in the countryside - and just about everyone believes at least one bit of this - is that the British Government started foot-and-mouth on purpose. They say that a phial of the virus was stolen from Porton Down research centre. A few sheep, cattle and pigs were intentionally infected. These were slaughtered and the Army dropped ears from the infected sheep and cows on to fields from helicopters. The goal was to cull farmers. People note that foot-and-mouth really abated only when Afghanistan beckoned and the Army had other places to be.

United on this, the countryside is divided on much else. This was an epidemic in which neighbour turned on neighbour and men with vans made hundreds of pounds a day carting diseased carcasses around tiny lanes. It was a black time - of destruction, chaos, incompetence, desperation. And now, as springtime beckons, the countryside has become green with jealousy. "Foot-and-mouth has created a countryside of haves and have-nots," says David Ursell, a priest and farmer in Devon. "It's just that they are not the ones you expect them to be."

WILLIE CLEAVE is a bumptious man who, for a week or two last spring, became something of a national hate figure. Cleave is the farmer and dealer from Devon who bought the initial batch of infected sheep at a Cumbrian market. Within days he had moved animals on to Germany, Northampton, Wiltshire, Hereford and around Devon. The result? When the disease was found at his farm on February 24, it was not the end but the beginning of a trail of death.

That week Devon felt under siege. Farmers had painted "KEEP OUT", usually on wood in red, lopsided letters, and blocked off their driveways. Disinfected straw was strewn across every pathway. Interviews had to be conducted from roads, slick with snow, over a soundtrack provided by starlings. Cleave, hunkered down at Burdon Farm on a hill just beyond the lovely little village of Highampton, wasn't giving interviews.

It took the slaughter team days to kill his stock - including the 200 Jacob sheep beloved by his wife - and all week for civil servants at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to create the funeral pyre. Finally they did it, digging a 400-yard trench and hauling in 29 tonnes of kindling, 290 tonnes of coal, 3,000 litres of paraffin. Just after midnight on the Friday, the pyre was lit.

A year on, Cleave is happy to talk. We meet at Burdon Farm. He is separated from his wife, who lives here in a farmhouse bedecked with huge ornamental butterflies. They have two boys and run the farm together. Cleave, who is 46 and has been farming since he was 15, has now bought a house in nearby Sheepwash.

For a man who has lost so much, he is incredibly upbeat. "I'm happy to talk to people like you," he says in his thick West Country accent, "because we got nothing to hide. When we went down, all the time we were supposed to have done wrong. But we've done nothing wrong. People thought we were crooks!" Cleave speaks in exclamation marks. He is hyperactive and, as a farmer, has a finger in many pies. Last February he had Burdon Farm and tenancies on 16 other places. In a normal week he would go north to buy thousands of sheep. Some would be sold on but most, about 2,000 to 3,000 a week, were slaughtered for the halal meat market. He is a shareholder in the local abattoir at Hatherleigh (one of his brothers is the managing director) and also has a big contract with an abattoir in Chippenham.

Cleave had 2,750 sheep and 950 cattle killed and burnt. His compensation payment of £762,000 was sent into his bank account within ten days of the slaughter. He notes that it would have been £1.3 million if his stock had been infected later, when a "fast-track" payment was introduced. "But we were happy for what we had, the £762,000."

Cleave waited four months to restock. He bought 591 cattle and 2,000 sheep. He now has 13 farms. "We had time to slow down. What we don't do today, we do tomorrow. That's the difference. Before, we didn't have time to speak to you!" Still, he was not exactly lolling around. From the end of March he was off to Ireland to buy sheep carcasses. He did this for six or seven weeks, bringing them to England to sell.

So you were busy, I say.

"Busy! Two days, three days a week. Flying over and back!" Still, you were doing something.

"Are we going to sit on a stool and roll up and DIE? That is what some of these farmers could do."

Well, I say, some are very depressed.

"That ain't us."

This is typical of how he sees farming. "When some people are on a slippery slope they cannot stop themselves. A lot of farmers are in a bad financial way. And some of them are too lazy to get off their asses and do something!" Like what? Get a job, he says. Take a risk. Get moving. He says many farmers have done well selling stock for slaughter under the Government's animal welfare scheme. (This was designed to help those not hit by the disease but who could no longer look after their stock properly because of movement restrictions.) The result of all this death, he says, is that when the markets open next month the prices for animals will be good. "Better times are coming now! They are!" And what about Cleave? Is he better or worse off after foot-and-mouth? "I can't say that I am worse off. I'm going to be just a little bit better off than I was before. We carry on. We have a bit more money under our belt. Just a little bit. But we've carried on farming. We put up with everything. All the shit that was thrown at me. I've took it all. I've thrown a bit back, too!" The funeral pyre field is grassed over now but all those bodies made for a lot of ash. This provides a rich fertiliser and the grass grows stronger because of it, and in this way the earth has marked the grave.

THE DIRECT cost of foot-and-mouth stands at £2.06 billion, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said this week. To put this into perspective, the figure is more than double the entire annual budget for MAFF in its final year. In theory, the EU can pay up to 60 per cent of the costs. To date, says Defra, no money has been received, though it is waiting for an advance on the initial UK claim of 355 million ( £218 million) which covers animals slaughtered until June 19. This is just 10.6 per cent of the total cost.

The biggest single item, at £1.08 billion, is for compensation. (The average payment made per farm was £107,000, though about 47 farmers have received more than £1 million each.) Other items include £254 million on cleaning and disinfecting, £171 million for transporting carcasses and £15 million for veterinary bills.

So who did get rich from foot-and-mouth? Most people see the compensation for farmers as fair and think that slaughtermen and vets have been paid decent rates for doing difficult jobs (it has been reported that some vets were getting £260 a day). But the people who really prospered were the middlemen. This includes the disinfectors, the haulage companies, the contractors who organised burial pits, the men with diggers and with vans. The countryside is full of get-rich-quick tales, including how some farms cost more than £200,000 to clean.

A great deal about foot-and-mouth remains murky, not least because people such as the vets who worked for the Ministry had to sign the Official Secrets Act. There are suspicions as to why the Government has set up three inquiries, none of which is fully public. Many farmers have serious questions about costs and strategy. After all, foot-and-mouth is a non-fatal disease that is almost impossible for human beings to catch. The High Court will hear an application for a public inquiry in mid-February.

Meanwhile, news of indecently large profits continues to leak out. Last week it was revealed that Cumbria, the county worst hit by foot-and-mouth, earned more than £7 million profit during the outbreak. Included is £2.4 million earned by a council "business unit" for helping the Government with "biosecurity", including the creation of disinfectant lagoons. The council's waste management service, called CWM, made £5 million profit for moving animal carcasses into its landfills. It is estimated that, during the outbreak, the CWM haulage operation alone cost up to £20,000 a day.

ALASTAIR DAVY is a hill farmer in Yorkshire and, on a freezing January day, his is a very icy hill indeed. The only way up the "road", which seems to me more like a bobsled run, is in Davy's Land Rover. This is old (1974), smelly (silage) and supremely uncomfortable. But, as we jolt and jigger along, I can see that this is a beautiful place. The wide and shallow River Swale runs near the road like some sort of advert for nature.

At 58, Davy looks grey and exhausted. He has flu and is anxious because the farm pipes are freezing. He is worried, almost desperate, about the future - so much so that he seems willing to tell me all his financial details. He and his wife Felicity are seriously in debt and the farmyard, lorded over by a rooster, looks run-down. So does his Yorkshire stone cottage. Bits of the stone floor move when I walk on them.

Alastair has been a tenant farmer for 34 years in Swaledale, building up a herd of 100 pedigree beef Limousin and 600 sheep. He started at Low Oxque Farm near Richmond and then added the next farm on (appropriately called High Oxque). Most recently he has taken a tenancy on Old Maid Farm, a "fattening farm" a few miles away. The theory was that this property would provide what Davy calls "added value". Instead of selling his cows and sheep to be fattened by someone else, he could do it himself and reap the rewards.

Foot-and-mouth never came to this dale, but it got close. "If you look at the top of that hill, that's as near as it got. That was Bellerby, which is four or five kilometres away." Movement restrictions were placed on all the farms in Swaledale from last March until early January and Old Maid Farm, which is closer to the outbreak, was put on a more restrictive D-notice.

Davy was paralysed. He could not sell or move stock except to the abattoir. Prices were terrible and the only way forward was to feed the stock and wait. He refused to sell his stock for slaughter through the animal welfare scheme. "Financial difficulties are not a welfare problem," he says gruffly, though many farmers were not so fussy.

It was an expensive way to survive. "We have had to borrow the requirements for every month for seven months and our costs are somewhere between £8,000 and £10,000 a month." There has been some income but when restrictions were finally lifted he was carrying an added debt of £25,000 to £40,000.

Foot-and-mouth, on the other hand, would have meant serious money in the bank. Each one of his Limousin would have been worth £2,000 - and that is £200,000 just for starters.

Davy says that anyone who deliberately introduced the disease into this dale would have been lynched. But did he ever wish for it? Even secretly? "Thirty-four years of breeding, my life's work, is in my animals. There is no way I would have wanted them to have it. But financially, for my family, it would have been better."

Will he go out of business? "That is up to the bank. I wouldn't blame them if they wanted their money back. If they do, we have nothing left."

What about the house? "I have the right to live here provided I don't go bankrupt."

What is the way out? "They say we should diversify. Well, I've applied for six jobs and been shortlisted three times but when it comes down, I am just too old. I'm 58, you see, they want you out at 60. Diversification is impossible if you've got no money."

What about B&B? "Can you see that here? We would never qualify."

We look round his front room. I can see what he means.

My eye is caught by the Christmas cards. One is from the Secretary of State, Margaret Beckett. Alastair Davy is one of those farmers who always has a plan, an idea, and he can talk about such things more or less forever. In different times he was a founder of the lobbying group Hill Farming Initiative.

He is angry about his plight. Even if all goes well, it will take three to five years to pay off the new debt. "I wouldn't mind if this had been my decision and my fault. But this wasn't my fault. THIS WAS NOT MY FAULT. And I don't like some of the decisions they made. And I do not see why I should pay for it."

He sees a public inquiry as essential. "We were forced into a situation of borrowing, more and more and more. These were decisions made by other people. And yet we are expected to pay for it. The least anybody could do is tell us why."

WENDY VERE is a vet in Devon and a human whirlwind. I catch her between farm visits and she manages to talk to me while eating a sandwich and advising clients on the constantly ringing phone. Vere is a rare thing: a vet who will talk. She did not sign the Official Secrets Act because she did not work for MAFF. "I wouldn't have lasted 45 minutes if I had, because of the sheer stupidity of the exercise." But she heard a lot from those who did.

It is a theme of foot-and-mouth that the crisis speeded up existing trends. For instance, some farmers have given up but most were probably going to do that anyway, though perhaps not so soon. In the same way, Vere says, the farmers' trust in the Government, which was already wavering, has been shaken to the core. Vere knows of several farms that lost stock under the "contiguous cull" policy even though there was no longer any risk of the disease. The reason? Panic. MAFF was caught "with its pants down", trying to deal with an outbreak that was out of control from the beginning.

"You had people running around in little circles and one person sitting in front of a computer screen going: that farm has to go, that farm has to go, that farm has to go. And you've got someone on the ground saying, there's no point in sending another slaughter team because there has already been one here."

She kept a record of some of the people she spoke to during that period. She thinks a public inquiry is vital. "Nothing will be learnt and the next time we get a major disease outbreak - it may not be foot-and-mouth - they still won't be able to mount an effective defence. And so it will be exactly the same scenario, with civil servants running around scratching their heads, saying Shit, what should we do now?'" But was it really like that? "Yes. I may not have been working for the Ministry but I have friends who did and I have had it from the horse's mouth that that was exactly what it was like."

She hands me a plastic bag with something hairy in it. "That's cow hair and skin."

She was given this by a farmer from an Exmoor village who found this stuff floating down on his farm like some sort of voodoo confetti. It came from a funeral pyre two miles away.

Vere explains how this could have spread the disease. Carcasses are piled up and start to putrefy. They are disinfected, but only the topside. When they are tipped on to the pyre, the contaminated underside is revealed. "Then they light the fire and the first blast of hot air will just lift the hair and skin off. Up in the air it goes!"

IF WILLIE CLEAVE is Mr Big and Alastair Davy is Mr Little, then Phillip and Gillian Bromwell would be Mr and Mrs Ordinary. Their Powys farm, just off the main road from Abergavenny to Crickhowell, is much more what you and I would think a farm should be. Phillip's father had this land before him; they knew every one of the cows in the dairy herd by name.

Foot-and-mouth arrived late here, in mid-July. Even then, the Bromwells thought that they might escape. When neighbours became infected, they resisted the contiguous cull and the Ministry agreed to monitor them. For weeks they stayed on their farm, barricaded and disinfected, milking amid the madness.

As fate would have it, their farm borders a disused MoD camp that became the headquarters for Defra's disinfecting operation in the area. One day Phillip found his heifers grazing not five yards away from lorries used to transport carcasses. "It really made us feel that the odds were stacked against us. The old expression was to put a tin hat on. We thought we were done for then but we didn't give up."

During the second week in August he found two of his cows slobbering. By August 11, the disease was confirmed. Gillian is sure it came from the army camp but, as Phillip cautions, "that is not official". The valuation (less than £200,000) was done immediately and their 144 animals were slaughtered the next day - his father's 84th birthday.

The slaughter was traumatic. Gillian still has a tic in her eye from that time. Phillip says that his sister's death a few years ago is the only thing that has happened to him that was worse. Afterwards there was nothing to do but wait - and get the farm clean. The Ministry took three bids for disinfecting and the Bromwells' bid, at less than £80,000, was the cheapest. They cleaned until the end of November. They have just restocked.

Last year the Bromwells did not make enough money to pay tax. This year will be slightly better but the thing that obsesses them is the idea that none of this was necessary.

"If we could have vaccinated, I would have done so in March," says Phillip. Their creamery would have taken the milk from vaccinated cows, he says. Vaccination would have cost him £250 to £300. In comparison, the entire cost of culling - ie, slaughtering, rendering, cleaning, compensation, etc - was close to £300,000. "A vaccination policy would have been a thousand times cheaper," he says. Phillip and Gillian take me to the barn to look at their new stock. They do not have names, yet, but they will. "The worst is behind us," says Phillip, his eyes looking particularly large and sad behind his spectacle lenses.

FOOT-AND-MOUTH has been mostly cruel but occasionally kind. The Church of England, for instance, has done well, rising to the challenge with both prayers and money. The monarchy, in the person of the Prince of Wales, has been seen as caring. Swill feeding has been banned, and the closure of the countryside has been a boon for wildlife.

"There has been a peregrine falcon there this year," says Andrew Poad, the property manager at Housesteads Roman Fort as we stand on Hadrian's Wall. "He would never have been there normally."

It is a glorious afternoon on Hadrian's Wall. The midwinter sun fills the sky and it is as if we have walked into some vast Renaissance painting. The National Trust and English Heritage, which run the place together, have taken a terrible hit here. Three of the four farmers on the land had stock slaughtered and the remaining one quit farming and is now teaching. For most of last year no tourists could walk here. Northumberland is said to have lost £22 million in tourist trade.

Just down the road from Housesteads is a tiny place called Twice Brewed (the drovers liked their beer strong). Here Jack and Christine Wright run a seven-bedroom guesthouse called Vallum Lodge. They are in their early sixties and their B&B caters for the "older guest".

They lost more than half their business last spring and summer and have had to take out a loan to support an overdraft. They tell me their story over tea and biscuits in the lounge. It is in this room, with its busy carpet, tasselled lamps and antimacassars on wing-backed chairs, that I am struck again by how insidious foot-and-mouth has been.

They will never be compensated. Even if everything goes well, it will take Jack and Christine three years to recoup their losses. By then it will be time to retire. The sums are infinitesimal by foot-and-mouth standards but, in this room, they seem as big as the Northumberland sky.