Why are we crying over Foot and Mouth
I am puzzled why people get so sentimental about Foot and Mouth. Sure it is a disaster. It’s an economic disaster for the agricultural business which risks yet again not being able to sell any meat abroad – not to mention for al the rest of us who must bail the unfortunate farmers out. And it’s decidedly unpleasant for people like me who would prefer to have our animals slaughtered behind the closed doors of an abattoir, than loaded as corpses into trucks in full view of the television cameras.
But why so much sentimental hype? And all the talk of “tragedy”?
Foot and Mouth is a very odd disease. For a start, despite the deathly impression you would get from most of the news, the vast majority of animals would recover from it anyway, with no long term ill-effects. It is the easy contagion, the visible nastiness and – most important -- the fact that European rules ban any infected animal from any European markets, that give foot and mouth its edge.
All the same, even the most austere newspaper and television reports treat it as the bovine equivalent of AIDS. A deadly virus that could move anywhere next; a surreptitious contagion creeping through the country.
As if we thought that these infected animals were in other, disease-free circumstances likely to have passed a long and happy life scampering through the meadows.
The nadir came on Wednesday’s Today programme, when a Scottish sheep farmer seemed to be in tears recollecting the last big epidemic in 2001 and what had happened within the “cull” zone.
Why was he crying? Not for the economic costs, at least not personally. Most accounts suggest that last time the government compensation for the culled animals was no less lucrative than what healthy livestock would have raised at market (even as much as £900 for a £600 animal). In fact, so far as I can work out, the farmers who lose in a Foot and Mouth epidemic are those whose herds don’t get the disease, or aren’t quite near enough to the infection – who are neither compensated nor able to sell their animals.
No, he was crying because he just couldn’t bear the memory of delivering a lamb from its young mother (her first baby, apparently), only to know that he was making it suckle for nothing and that it would shortly be killed by lethal injection from the government vets. It was a bit like losing a child, he said. A terrible tragedy of loss.
Moving enough to be sure. But hang on. What was the lamb being bred for in the first place? Actually for another form of speedy death. As the programme made clear, this was a meat breeding farm (“for eating essentially” as the farmer put it). The people who were missing out were those of us who would otherwise have been tucking into this sweet little animal in a few months times, with new potatoes and mint sauce. Which is, of course, where the “it’s not terribly dissimilar from looking after your own children” analogy breaks down.
Economic disaster is one thing. But to weep for the fate of an animal you would have been selling to the slaughter-house in a few weeks anyway is an odd form of grief.
But happily the news this morning is that the restrictions are being lifted. The nation’s animals can now take to the road again – to their accustomed abattoirs