Friday, 21 December 2007

Baaa ..... Humbug!

The cold winds do blow and we shall have snow ....and the Bluetongue midges - according to DEFRA decree today - will bite no more for a while. At least, this is what we and the midges have been told and the farmers, desperate to do some moving of stock at last, are not going to argue.

But what about the future of those sheep still abiding in the fields? How are they to be kept from succumbing to the Bluetongue infection-carrying culicoides of next Spring?

In its usual mixture of ponderous bossiness and defensiveness, DEFRA says:

"In keeping with the principles set out in the Bluetongue Control Strategy,which was developed in partnership with the farming industry, livestock keepers will be offered the opportunity to purchase vaccine from the vaccine bank..."
Which is all very well if you are one of the relatively well-off cattle farmers. Values have held up this year and will be expected to continue to do so next year. A farmer with a thousand head of beef cattle or 500 dairy cattle can be thought wealthy compared to the sheep farmers. But a sheep farm with a thousand ewes is not a wealthy farm at all. It's running at a loss and this year has been disastrous.

If we consider such a farm with 1000+ adult sheep, there will be nearly 2000 lambs just at the very time that bluetongue is going to return with a vengeance - as it did in Northern Europe this year. The virulence of its return there took everyone by surprise. If the vaccine is ready, now that a firm order has at last been placed by England (Wales has now ordered 2.5 million doses but Scotland has ordered none as far as we know,) 2 doses per animal at 50p a dose is the best case scenario. Sheep farmers like this then will be required to find £3000 to protect their animals. If vaccine turns out to be £1 a dose they will need £6000 - but these are animals who are worth pitiful amounts now.

The sheep farmers simply cannot afford it.

DEFRA seems wilfully ignorant of just how miserable the past months and years have been. Even more sheep farmers will give up - and having to take the decision to do so will be the worst kind of painful nightmare for them.

And for the country? We tend to take for granted the rural way of life and the sights and sounds of upland Britain. The uplands are there; a pastoral idyll to believe in. Most of us do not have to work to maintain it. But we treasure it and life is better just knowing that it is there.

How many people realise that an entire way of life is on a knife edge and the uplands could soon disappear? Does DEFRA understand this? As the Yorkshire farmer Alistair Davy says,
" if you want to see the future, just look at the west coast of Scotland .. the farmers had no other industry to rely on, ...all the animals have gone ......if the sheep and the cows are no longer grazing, it wouldn't take long for it to become impenetrable with bracken and bramble. For the last few years, the true picture of the problems facing agriculture have been masked..."

And why are the sheep farmers being told to pay when they simply do not have the means? The EU Commissioners have agreed to fund the first year's vaccination campaign with 100% costs of vaccines and 50% of the costs.

When DEFRA officialdom was challenged on this, the reply came back that if the UK accepted this offer there would be “other costs that would probably be greater". "Other costs" ?

Perhaps one reason why DEFRA has been so very silent on the question of the Brussels offer is because funding for vaccination is conditional on the traceability of the vaccinated animals. The EU has been very sniffy indeed about the UK's dithering over this. The UK's plans for a National Livestock database has been sputtering along for years.

In 2004, "Identifying and Tracking Livestock in England " was published by the National Audit Office (pdf). Pages 45 and 46 of that document show how - for years on end - previous reports from several different concerned bodies, had followed one after another, all urging an efficient system of traceability. In spite of this endless procession of good intentions, nothing of worth materialised. In February 2004, following the NAO report, the Public Accounts Committee gave Sir Brian Bender and co the sort of hard time that never gets reported in the media and ought to be. One Treasury Minute response to the PAC conclusions also makes fascinating reading. Mr Gerry Steinberg, Labour MP for the city of Durham, prophetically asked Sir Brian Bender:
"You will not be coming back in two years' time and saying 'Well, the IT was difficult, we could not get the software'....?"
That was 2004. Sir Brian couldn't get the software.....

But it's the farmers who must now pay for this and other catalogues of failure.

We have to vaccinate the sheep. Other European countries are not in our situation. There, the cattle far outnumber the sheep and vaccinating the cattle and some sheep should confer a degree of protection on the whole animal population. 80% will do it. But in Britain the ratio of cattle to sheep is more like 25:75, the other way round. If sheep farmers can't afford to vaccinate then the sheep are not going to be vaccinated. That means that even if the cattle farmers do vaccinate the disease is not going to be stopped. Where are DEFRA's "other costs" then? It will cost many animals their lives and farmers their livelihoods. It will cost us the uplands. Bluetongue will be the death of sheep farming unless we can get the sheep vaccinated.

Cannot some way be found simply to by-pass DEFRA with all its inefficiency, its failure to comprehend farming, disease and its pitifully inadequate grasp of technology, virology and vaccination? Unless funding can somehow pass direct from the EU to the sheep farmers this will be the last Christmas for many whose simple satisfaction was to see their sheep safely graze.

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