UK Farmers Threaten 'Rural Revolt'

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

London ( - The British government faced threats of a rural revolt Friday over its plans to slaughter hundreds of thousands of apparently healthy farm animals in a pre-emptive strike it hopes may stop the rampant spread of foot-and-mouth disease.

All pigs and sheep within two miles of infected farms in heavily affected areas of the country are to be culled, whether or not they show symptoms of the highly contagious livestock disease. Many of the ewes will be pregnant, and lambs will also die.

The first case of foot-and-mouth was confirmed on mainland Europe this week, prompting a total ban on European Union live animals, meat and dairy products by some 90 countries, including the U.S.

As the number of UK cases continued to climb, reaching 256 early Friday, the government faced growing criticism that it wasn't acting firmly enough..

Official farmers' representatives Friday reluctantly accepted the necessity for a pre-emptive cull, but there are signs some farmers may have reached the end of their tethers. Already hard-hit by a prohibition on moving animals to market, they now face the prospect of empty fields at a time they should be filling up with newborn lambs.

In the northwestern Cumbria district, some farmers are threatening to forcibly prevent Agriculture officials from entering their properties to kill their livestock.

Andrew Spence, a sheep and cattle farmer in the area, took a few moments out from lambing Friday to say he and other farmers in the region were "disgusted about this, what we're calling an extermination policy. We're wanting to see some common sense shown by this government, which it's definitely lacking at the moment."

Even before the new policy was announced, Spence said, farmers were angry that the carcasses of animals killed because they actually had foot-and-mouth were not being removed and burnt by government officials quickly enough.

Farmers are themselves not permitted to move them, and many have bloated and rotting carcasses lying in their fields or stalls.

"That problem should have been sorted out before anything else [was introduced]."

Spence said farmers suspected the government was getting panicky about the possible political impact of a prolonged outbreak - particularly as Prime Minister Tony Blair is soon expected to announce an early general election date.

"What I think we're seeing is the government trying to rush in to get everything done and cleaned up before an election in May. I think that's the agenda."

Spence's farm doesn't have foot-and-mouth but lies within the two-mile zone of two farms that do. As such his sheep are destined for slaughter. Asked what he would do if government officials arrived to shoot them, he said: "I don't know how I'd react. It would be something that would just happen at the time ..."

Spence is a member of a group called Farmers for Action. Its chairman, David Handley, said Friday British farmers had had enough, and that a "rural revolt" was a real possibility.

On two farms in Cumbria, farmers had already barred entry to government officials who arrived to shoot their livestock Friday, he said in a telephone interview from his dairy farm in Wales. Many more would follow, he predicted.

"We're seeing a new breed here in the United Kingdom. We've sat back [but no more]. We're not militant in the sense that we're going to use violence, but we're certainly going to use peaceful protest, to highlight to the rest of the world what's happening to us."

Handley called the pre-emptive cull "totally immoral" and accused the government of trying to destroy the British livestock farming industry. He charged that UK farmers were having their animals killed while the country continued to important meat from high-risk areas.

"We're the laughing stock of Europe - shooting healthy animals while allowing [suspect] meat to come into the country."

His organization had been warning the government and food safety bodies about the threat posed by the importation of meat from countries where foot-and-mouth has been widespread, such as South Africa and Argentina.

Yet right up to the present, the importation was continuing, he said.

Handley noted the strict measures being introduced in the U.S. this week, where sniffer dogs were to be used and passengers from Europe questioned carefully about visits to farming areas, in a bid to prevent foot-and-mouth - which has been absent from the U.S. since 1929 - from entering.

"When we see the precautions the Americans are taking ... the American government are prepared to put the money into preventing [the virus from entering the U.S.]. Why on earth can't Britain?"

Handley, whose organization had "several thousand" members across the country, said farmers were facing the worst crisis most had seen in their lives. Two members committed suicide this week, he added. Many were desperate, and angry at the "arrogance and ignorance" displayed by the government.

"We don't want people to think we're irresponsible. All we want is pure scientific evidence to show this [cull] is justified."

But the government had refused to meet Farmers for Action about the current crisis, he said.

"They're trying to tell the public we're right-wing activists. We're not. I'm an ordinary farmer in south Wales. Myself and my wife milk 140 cows every day. I'm seeing my business decimated. I'm not prepared to see that happen to many thousands of others in the United Kingdom."

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow