British Hysteria Fueled by Stupidity

Nation Ignored Foot-and-Mouth Warning, Dooming 910,000 Sheep. A Special Report From the Killing Fields

 LAZONBY, CUMBRIA, ENGLAND, March 31—Along the road into this northern English village, a couple stand leaning on the gate to a small farm. They are motionless, almost as if in a trance, staring out at something. In the near distance, a thin column of smoke rises above the sloping green fields.

A little way down the road, a British soldier in rumpled camouflage waits next to a matching truck parked in front of a big barn. The barn is open and empty. Just out of town, a pickup towing a small trailer draped in a blue tarp has pulled off, and two young men, dressed all in white, are spraying the roadsides with disinfectant.

Behind them, half hidden by the stone walls, lies a newly dug pit with smoke already wafting up. These three men are the execution squad, cleaning up before a visit to the next farm.

Still farther along the back road, a rise gives a view across the undulating countryside, neatly divided by walls, green with early spring, the daffodils just coming out. Dotted with farmhouses and barns, the fields are empty of animals. Everywhere, plumes of smoke drift skyward. The place is enveloped in silence, and in the smell of charred flesh. By the time the weekend is over, every sheep in Lazonby will be dead.

The landscape resembles a war zone, and indeed, this is a military operation. At month's end, foot-and-mouth disease had broken out at 840 farms. Nationwide, 570,000 sheep had already been slaughtered, and 340,000 more awaited the same fate. With only 921 confirmed cases, the ratio of diagnosis to killing has at times been one to 1000.

The worst outbreak is in Cumbria, in northwestern England on the Scottish border. Here the campaign is being waged not at the center of the outbreak, but on its edges, where there is no infection, with the British army clearing what amounts to a cordon sanitaire around the disease. Brigadier Alex Birtwistle, a counterterrorist specialist, is in charge of the operation, and his aim, reports the London Sunday Times, is to destroy "every living thing" in a broad corridor through the countryside.

Despite such ruthless efforts, the disease has not yet been contained—nor has the fallout from it. On Saturday, it was revealed that British agriculture ministry officials participated in a Tokyo conference called in June to warn other countries that a new pan-Asian strain of foot-and-mouth was spreading quickly throughout that continent. On returning, the government officials not only failed to give any public warnings, but didn't even tell the nation's farmers.

Stung by the crisis, Prime Minister Tony Blair put off his planned May 3 attempt at reelection until early June, and also got on television with U.S. correspondents in an effort to persuade Americans to visit Britain. Few well-known voices have failed to speak their piece. The moribund Tory leader William Hague weakly asked for help for small businesses hurt by the disease. Prince Charles, the most outspoken voice for organic farming, has donated over 500,000 pounds to the farmers, and last weekend he branded the mass killing "mindless." Scottish patriot Sean Connery announced he'll lead a public relations campaign aimed at persuading Americans to come back to Scotland. Grassroots protests have also cropped up. In northern Wales, another huge sheepherding area where the cull is turning the rivers red with blood, residents stole a bulldozer and bashed in a police car with a cop inside it.

Foot-and-mouth threatens to paralyze British agriculture for at least a year, and it is devastating the much larger tourism business, which by one estimate could lose 470 million pounds—about $666 million—per week this month. The farmers, who were already subsidized annually to the tune of 19,000 pounds, will be paid for the animals killed. But the tourist industry has no subsidy. Tony Blair says the crisis has been trumped up by the media, and disinformation does seem to be widespread: British TV viewers last week were treated to live interviews on the streets of New York, where eight out of 10 people said they wouldn't come here—some frightened they couldn't find any food safe to eat, others that their hands and feet would fall off. Yet the idea of pits filled with the bodies of sheep and their tiny lambs is hardly inviting, and a map published in the Guardian makes Britain look like a combat zone.

More and more, the slaughter policy seems to make little economic sense. Britain's major farm exports are dairy products and lamb meat, with an annual value of only 310 million pounds, argues Peter Midmore, an agricultural economics professor at the University of Wales. The loss of this trade wouldn't do much harm to the national economy. Midmore also questions the assertion that British meat will forever be tainted on the world market, since the country exports so little in the first place, mostly to fellow members of the European Union. If that trade were lost, it might help the U.K. by increasing the domestic supply and reducing prices, especially in the case of milk, a product Britain might otherwise soon have to import.

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