Foot and Mouth Disease


Universe Column

By David Alton

In his poem, The Waste Land, T.S.Eliot famously wrote that “April is the cruellest month.” For the poet, the labour pains and birth pangs of the new season are in cruel contrast to the deadened world which they disrupt.

This year the medieval pyres of burning carcasses have abruptly returned the spring shoots to the earth. The noxious stench of burning animals has entirely displaced the spring imagery of new life.  The season of new beginnings has been cruelly cut short as frolicking lambs and innocent calves are hunted down and killed.

And for what purpose?

A vaccination is available to inoculate the animals against foot and mouth disease but the Government has categorically ruled this out in favour of the mass cull.  They tell us that we have to kill because otherwise we will lose our disease free status and that would close the door to many potential export markets.

But does this really matter?

Thousands of perfectly healthy sheep, pigs and cattle are now being slaughtered because they might contract the disease; If they were vaccinated they could be grown on and sold into the domestic market.

Given that British agriculture is incapable of feeding our population without relying on imports I can see no justification for worrying about the export market. The principal motive seems foreign currency, the money which exports generate. We would do better to keep British meat for consumption in Britain. For one thing it would mean less reliance on some of the diseased products that we are currently importing. Our recent experience with BSE means that – albeit rather late in the day – our current standards for hygiene and health are probably better than in most other parts of the world

This current crisis should make us take a long look at what we have done to agriculture and rural life.

The industrialisation of farming has led to mass production and to inhumane practices such as the transportation of live animals over hundreds of miles). If Governments spent less time and money trying to mess up nature – with genetically manipulated crops and cloned sheep (at the behest of Ministers such as Lord Sainsbury) and ensured the proper health welfare of the ones that God has given us we would be rather better off. But once again, the motive is money.

The Government too often bows in the direction of vested interests. They tell us to go back to the countryside (because the tourist industry is worth £30 billion a year) but we all know this must increase the risk of the disease spreading. They also insist on staging elections in counties which are under siege, because not to do so “would give off he wrong signal” – yet they don’t seem to care that this will disenfranchise farmers and agricultural workers, who already feel isolated and alienated.  And, by contrast, what sort of signal do they think that the slaughter of the national herd and the national flock will send?

When ancient Egypt was visited by pestilence and plagues the pharaohs, the leaders, were forced to change.  Out of all this cruelty and wrong-headedness is it too much to hope for something similar in our own times?