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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Foot and Mouth

Air Date: Week of

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More than three million livestock animals have been slaughtered in Great Britain since the start of the foot and mouth outbreak. Jesse Wegman reports on how the pastoral English countryside may change with grazing animals and farmers no longer tending to the land.


CURWOOD: Britain is on the alert again. Less than two weeks after the government came close to signaling the end of the foot in mouth crisis, there are new outbreaks of the disease. Prime Minister Tony Blair is asking the country not to drop its guard. Mr. Blair faces re-election, and the Tory Party has accused him of covering up the scale of the epidemic. Angry farmers and tourist operators are clamoring for financial compensation. And in the long run, the loss of so many farm animals in so short a time may end up changing the very nature of the British landscape. Jesse Wegman has our story.

(Footfalls, a latch)

WEGMAN: Alan Lawson heard the news on a cold February night: 27 pigs at a slaughterhouse in Essex diagnosed with foot and mouth disease. Lawson had 700 sheep and a pedigree herd of cattle, but he wasn't worried.

LAWSON: When it first was diagnosed and that slaughter was in Essex, you thought oh, well, they'll contain it, it's a one-off thing. It'll be over within a few days.

WEGMAN: Lawson had reason to be calm. After all, his farm in the northern England town of Hallington is almost 300 miles from the Essex slaughterhouse. But then agriculture officials discovered the diseased pigs had been trucked to Essex from a farm just 12 miles from Alan Lawson's spread.

LAWSON: Me heart just dropped. I felt sick, just -- it was an unbelievable feeling of sheer terror.

WEGMAN: Foot and mouth is one of the most contagious livestock diseases known. It's carried by almost anything, including the wind. A pig can exhale enough virus particles in one day to infect thousands of animals. Five weeks after the outbreak was identified, animals on Lawson's neighbor's farm became infected. The virus quickly spread to Lawson's sheep, which had just begun to lamb. A day later, the government came to slaughter his entire stock, nearly 800 animals in all.

LAWSON: I came away from the cattle because I just -- you know, the cattle, we knew all of them by names because of the pedigrees of them and all that, and it was just too -- just distressing to stay and watch them slaughtered. I just came back in the house and everything was gone, and it was just distressing.

WEGMAN: Alan Lawson stands outside his stone farmhouse on a chilly spring evening with his hands buried deep in his pockets. I notice a strange sound in the air, and a minute passes before I realize what it is. There is no sound. Lawson nods toward the surrounding hills.

LAWSON: From my neighbor's farm there, the farm on the other side of him, he was all slaughtered because they were contiguous to his farm. There are three of my neighbors here, all slaughtered. I suppose you could nearly travel for about five full miles and you'll not find an animal on farms. You know, everything is just gone. It's all gone.

WEGMAN: Lawson considers himself lucky under the circumstances. At least the government took his animals away for disposal. His neighbors' were heaped into a pile and set on fire. Lawson points to an orange glow on the dark horizon, about a kilometer away.

LAWSON: It's been burning eight days now. Eight days.

(Driving, birds in the distance)

WEGMAN: Lawson has it about right. I have to drive three miles before I find live animals. They're on Tom Milburn's farm in the town of Barrasford.

MILBURN: We're just walking on a knife edge. We don't know. Tomorrow we might have it, today we haven't.

WEGMAN: Milburn is 58 this year. His family has kept the farm, as well as an inn and a pub, for three generations. So far, none of his 140 sheep has shown signs of foot and mouth, but he isn't taking chances. When I ask if I can follow him on his morning feed, he lets me, but not before I take the necessary precautions.

MILBURN: Just cuff your leg up and put it under there.

WEGMAN: Milburn mixes up a batch of disinfectant in a green watering can and pours it over my shoes.


MILBURN: We're doing the best we can. Got to keep the job right.

WEGMAN: A bit of luck and decent weather have given Milburn an unusually good lambing season. As he pours feed from the bag, the flock jockeys for position.


MILBURN: They run with a big couple of lambs; it's probably one of the best crops I've ever had. They're nearly all twins in here. I think this -- well, there are 48 ewes and I think there's only five singles among them. I've never had anything that good happen to me before.


WEGMAN: But Tom Milburn has no illusions about what would happen if any of his sheep came down with foot and mouth. Stamping out is the term the government uses. It's an aggressive policy that calls for the immediate slaughter not just of all animals on an infected farm, but of all animals on all farms that border the infected farm. The reason for the policy is mainly economic. Although foot and mouth is rarely fatal in grown animals, it lowers milk and meat production. The government rejected vaccination for the same reason. Since current tests can't distinguish vaccinated animals from infected ones, a country that uses vaccination is not considered disease-free and loses valuable export dollars. Tom Milburn knows all this and supports the slaughter. Still, he admits, the scale of it is breathtaking.


MILBURN: Nobody realizes how many sheep have been taken out of the farm, spreading disease. It's totally bloody amazing.


WEGMAN: To date, more than three million animals have been destroyed, even though only 1,600 have been diagnosed with the disease. Some estimates predict the final slaughter number will reach six million, or ten percent of all British farm animals. But how did foot and mouth spread so quickly? One explanation lies in the way Europe subsidized its farmers to boost food production after World War II. Farmers get paid based on how many animals they can raise, and that's encouraged them to overstock and ship their animals around frequently. The result, Tom Milburn says, was easy to predict.

MILBURN: There's too much stock in the country. Everybody knew that. And perhaps, you know, this is where they're going to get shut of a lot of the stuck. Because there are a lot of farmers who definitely won't go back into stock farming.

WEGMAN: Even with subsidies, most farmers make under $15,000 a year. And a third of all family farms in Britain have shut down in the past decade. While foot and mouth may just be the latest in a series of setbacks for British farmers, it's a big one.

(Baaing, fade to laughter and voices)

WEGMAN: That evening, a group of local farmers congregates in Tom Milburn's pub, the Barrasford Arms. Milburn knows it's risky to expose himself like this, but he needs the money. As a precaution, he's soaked old rugs in disinfectant and laid them at the front door of the pub. After they wipe their feet, the farmers sit around a gas fire and nurse pints of beer. It's clear that the outbreak has changed lives here forever, and not just for those on infected farms. John Henderson usually calls out the bids at the Hexham Auction Mart. But since the crisis began it's his task to place a value on animals marked for slaughter.

HENDERSON: Terrible. It's a hell of a job. Sick of it. You know what the end is going to be. And there will be friends of yours -- most of my lifetime I don't mean to -- you know, and I'm sort of dealing with their livelihood, real even, just going down the drain on them. But what's there to do, you've got to do it, you know?

WEGMAN: In farm country there is still plenty of anger and confusion about the disease itself.

MILBURN: How the hell can I come in for meat if it's supposed to be dead and after thirty minutes after you've shot it?

WEGMAN: As Tom Milburn pours drinks behind the bar, he scoffs at the government's insistence that the countryside is open for business as usual.

MILBURN: It's not the bloody same. It's not even exactly the same. It's bloody miles away from going to see them. If this keeps going for another twelve months and put me out of business.

(Voices up and under)

WEGMAN: But beyond the immediate effects of foot and mouth, the potential for an even bigger change looms. A change in the look of the countryside.

MILBURN: I can see that happening now. If they take the sheep off these hills they'll never get back to normal.

WEGMAN: By normal, Tom Milburn means the pastoral landscape that Britain has cultivated for centuries. Rolling green hills and hedgerows. A land created in large part by grazing sheep. You can see it here on Milburn's farm, perfect grass fields stretching into the distance, separated by low, ancient stone walls. It's a world the writer John Ruskin once called almost too beautiful to live in. But Milburn says if you consider how many farmers have already given up, the loss of so many sheep to foot and mouth could change the look of the countryside forever.

MILBURN: Country farming people are custodians of the countryside and it's them that keep it in reasonable order. I mean, can you imagine on those fells in Cumberland, grass fells, where there's no sheep to graze them? They become scrub and the whole look of the Lake District will change, and I don't think it will be for the better.

WEGMAN: Milburn has a lot of company on that count. Tourism in Britain generates $140 billion a year, five times as much as farming. So there's tremendous pressure to maintain the countryside as it is. Still, not everyone is horrified by the prospect of an altered landscape.

EVANS: Scrub is almost a derogatory term. You almost spit the word scrub. You know, it's a kind of a moral dereliction to have all this scrub around.

WEGMAN: Paul Evans writes widely about agriculture and conservation issues in Britain. Scrub, he says, is really just infant forest, and its banishment from the English countryside is based on the assumption that people don't visit Britain for its wilderness.

EVANS: When you promote that idea, you market that idea to the rest of the world. I think the problem is that a lot of people have actually begun to believe it, that this is a rural idyll that needs to be protected and preserved in a particular sort of way.

WEGMAN: But Evans says that if fewer sheep were let out to graze, woodland could regenerate in places that have long symbolized Britain's heritage. Places like the Lake District, where the poet William Wordsworth wrote of pastoral farms, green to the very door.

EVANS: And it's not just the Lake District. It's the mountains of Wales and the west of England and the southwest and lots of other places where at least the potential is there for a kind of a natural renaissance of species and habitats. Which may not have been possible if it were not for an agricultural crisis.

WEGMAN: It's an idea that hasn't caught on yet. But in the wake of another agricultural crisis, Britain may have little choice but to rethink its idea of countryside.

(Church bells)

WEGMAN: A few fields over from Tom Milburn's farm, the Church of St. Giles, Chollerton, is ringing its bells for Sunday services. But rather than risk exposure, Milburn stays home and spends the morning feeding his flock.


WEGMAN: His lambs are healthy and active. And when the crisis is over, Milburn hopes to get good money for them. After all, thousands of British farmers will need new animals. But first Milburn will have to stay clear of foot and mouth himself. And that means checking his animals daily. He keeps 48 ewes in this field. Today's head count comes up short.

MILBURN: I've got two missing. I'm just going to have a look for them, be back in a minute.

WEGMAN: Milburn doesn't say it, but he knows sheep often go missing when they're sick, an unremarkable event in normal times. But these are not normal times. He jogs off over the hill.

MILBURN: Hup! Hup! Hup!

WEGMAN: A few minutes later he reappears with the two sheep trailing close behind. It's a false alarm. The stragglers had wandered to the far end of the field and didn't hear the call to eat. Still, this is what every day is like now for Tom Milburn. He's fighting a disease and trying to hold onto a way of life that he can't control.


MILBURN: Well you see, there's a bloody cat up there. Do you see that cat? Now how the hell can we stop a cat from going from one farm to another? You cannot, can you? I mean, anything can spread this disease. I mean how the hell do you tell a pheasant he doesn't have the right -- There's the bloody cat, you see? He's going from my house now to my neighbor's. (Baaing)

MILBURN: I don't keep a cat myself. I hate the bloody things.

WEGMAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Jesse Wegman in Barrisford, North Umberland, England.


MILBURN: I've never liked cats.

(Baaing, fade to music up and under: Puck, "The Faerie Folk"



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