British Hysteria Fueled by Stupidity

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

The slaughter itself, on the other hand, will be very costly. According to one late March analysis, it could end up affecting 4000 farms and 31 million animals. More realistically, it would involve nearly 3 million pigs and sheep alone, with Cumbrian sheep accounting for half the total. Lost income and the burden of replacing these animals could run to about 183 million pounds, or $259 million, on top of the lost tourist revenue.

Since foot-and-mouth is fatal neither to animals nor humans, some advocate vaccinating livestock to stop the spread. Vaccinated animals couldn't be exported, but a full-scale program would still cost less than the current approach. "In total," says Midmore, "the maximum cost of the vaccination alternative would be limited to 315 million pounds."

Slaughtering animals is scarcely worth the price in lost tourism. Wealth in Cumbria comes not from the small farms with their grazing sheep. These operations barely stay alive, even with the subsidies; a lone farmer often shepherds a flock with help only from his border collie, and shears the wool himself. What makes the money is the picturesque look of the place, complete with tranquil lambs grazing on the green hills. This supports tens of thousands of businesses: B&Bs, restaurants, shops, and tour companies—entire busy communities that might otherwise be deserted.

In southern Cumbria's famous Lake District, the back roads and trails are, according to one local, usually "black with tourists" walking the countryside; now, business has fallen off to a trickle. The lakes and villages remain accessible by paved roads, but the government has marked virtually every path and field out-of-bounds. To enter Britain's largest national park, cars must drive across mats soaked in antiseptic. A case of foot-and-mouth was discovered within the park last week, putting everyone on edge. In Winderemere, at the center of the Lake District, the proprietor of one bed-and-breakfast reported only six guests on the weekend, compared to the usual 20. Such things have a ripple effect. She, in turn, will not be able to afford to employ local contractors, as planned, to repaint her house. A man making his living taking visitors on driving tours has seen his business drop by 70 percent.

There is one new profession open to locals, however: In an effort, he says, to help the local economy, Brigadier Birtwistle contracts with local companies to move through the villages and carry out the slaughter. The people of the countryside are tossing their livelihood onto the pyre, carcass by carcass.

Local business owners speak of just trying to hang on until next year. But the impact of the slaughter, if not the disease, may be long-term. Over the weekend, the National Environmental Technology Center filed a report with the government warning that using gasoline, kerosene, and creosote to burn dead animals is likely to send up deadly cancer-causing dioxins into the winds, and that poisonous runoff from the shallow graves of thousands of sheep scattered about may end up leaching into the water supply. In addition, the Ministry of Agriculture has granted permission to bury young cattle—something that's never been done because of fears it would spread mad cow disease into the water.

It all seems like the wrong way to fight a disease that neither infects humans nor even kills the animals themselves. But this is the way foot-and-mouth has always been handled.

The practice of slaughter in response to similar livestock diseases was carried out as a precaution to protect public health as far back as 1711. With the rise of modern business during the industrial revolution, argues Abigail Woods, a vet at Manchester University who has studied foot-and-mouth, the slaughter response helped protect the interests of the rich. "Breeders perceiving [it] as a disease inflicting severe economic losses upon their valuable stock possessed the political power to impress these notions upon others," she writes. In addition, she says, the disease had to be stamped out for the sake of efficiency. Animals who contract foot-and-mouth are less valuable because their weight drops and they produce less meat and milk. "The capitalists fear that reduction in the meat supply by [foot-and-mouth] would spark civil unrest and reduce workers' productivity levels."

The Cumbrian landscape is crisscrossed by walls, built two centuries ago to divide the land among the small farmers. To the north, just below the Scottish border, is Hadrian's Wall, left behind by the Roman conquerors.

Now there are new kinds of barriers here, delineated by the signs marking the fields and country lanes off-limits to tourists. These barriers were created by the destruction of others. Foot-and-mouth is a disease of the global economy. It is among the features of the new free-trade world, in which devastating invasions occur not with foreign armies landing, but with an Asian longhorn beetle sneaking ashore in a crate from China, or a damaging bug stuck on a tree carried north to Oregon from a Mexican forest.

By erasing national borders, free trade introduces a new set of conditions. British sheep, which once took a full season to meander their way down from the hills to the valleys, are now whipped around the country in two or three days. They once were butchered in local abattoirs, an arrangement that confined the 1967 foot-and-mouth outbreak to the north. England lacked enough veterinary inspectors to comply with the strict standards of the European Union, which led to the recruiting of foreign inspectors, many of them women from Spain who had trouble with the language and struggled in an all-male industry. Choked by regulations, scores of local abattoirs closed in the late 1990s, and farmers began sending animals all around the country to fewer and more specialized operations. This process has almost certainly contributed to the spread of foot-and-mouth across the nation.

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