Why the fallen stock scheme is legislative madness

HISTORIANS will doubtless recall that Benjamin Franklin was one of the co- authors of the American Declaration of Independence.

For the rest of us his most memorable declaration was that "in this world there can be nothing that is more certain, except death and taxes". A clever accountant will help to lessen the tax bill, but no end of devotions will save us from the great reaper.

No, this is not going to be a spiritual treatise, but a blast at those who imposed the National Scrapie Plan (NSP) on the sheep industry and then followed up that nonsense up with the fallen stock scheme. Non-farming readers are probably blissfully unaware that it is an offence to bury a sheep, while it is perfectly legitimate to pack our graveyards with human remains. But that is fact.

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But let's begin with scrapie. It is a disease that affects the brains of sheep, whose symptoms do not become evident until the animal is about three years old. It is invariably fatal and has been recognised for at least 200 hundred years. Indeed, James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, discussed the condition in his Shepherd's Guide, published in 1807.

Generations of farmers and shepherds knew about scrapie, but tended to be reticent in admitting that their flocks might have had a few cases. Such a declaration could have a serious impact on the value of breeding stock. Then along came the great BSE crisis of 1996 and the concession that there could be a link between the cattle disease and variant CJD in humans.

Scrapie, just like BSE, is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, or TSE, which in common parlance translates as a degenerative disease of the brain.

The scientists pronounced that scrapie could be masking the fact that the bovine disease BSE was being carried by the UK's national flock of almost 40 million sheep. Scrapie would have to be eliminated as quickly as possible.

This would be accomplished by genotyping pedigree rams.

There are five distinct genotypes and the theory was that by keeping only groups one and two and slaughtering the rest, the country would soon be rid of scrapie.

Cynical farmers and shepherds thought this was a load of nonsense, but they had no choice in the matter if they were to continue selling pedigree livestock.

Breeders of hill sheep, particularly Blackfaces, were adamant that the process of selecting only top rated rams was diluting the inherent hardiness of their flocks. There is no scientific proof of that, but I am willing to accept the word of those who have spent lifetimes in the hills.

But towards the end of last year the government's own spongiform encephalopathy advisory committee (SEAC) ever so quietly admitted that the chances of BSE being present in the sheep flock were as close to zero as one could possibly wish. On a UK basis the implementation of the NSP has cost taxpayers at least 100 million, with the government picking up most of the bill for the testing process.

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Incredible as it may seem, the agricultural press were called to a briefing in Edinburgh's Pentland House, the headquarters of the Scottish Executive's Environment and Rural Affairs Department, in 2000 to be told there was a contingency plan to slaughter every sheep in the UK.

There was a degree of sympathy for the senior civil servant who made that announcement. The government would be damned for the news, but equally condemned if it did not have a contingency plan in place should BSE have been found in sheep.

The future of the NSP is now unclear, but doubtless there will be some breeders who will wish to continue testing, at their own expense. Over the past ten years many valuable bloodlines have been lost. I remember at a recent Royal Highland Show seeing one of the best Blackface rams ever. He was awarded the breed championship. But he could not be used because he was in the lowest category for scrapie resistance. It is to be hoped his owners have some semen in store.

Just over two years ago Brussels, with the connivance of Whitehall, decreed that a ban was to be imposed on the burial of fallen stock on farms. This was designed to prevent any leakage from carcases that might have been infected with a TSE into burns and rivers. The reality was that it was only sheep that tended to be buried on farm, with cattle and pigs collected by knackermen or the local hunt kennels. The government agreed that it would share the cost of the disposal scheme for a limited period, which is now nearing its conclusion.

The Executive managed to secure a derogation for most of the Highlands and Islands, where the cost and logistics of a collection scheme would have been prohibitive. But there are now lorries running around most of the remainder of Scotland collecting fallen stock. Such movements, even of dead livestock, are dangerous, having the ability to spread disease.

About two years ago Robbie Weir, a large-scale sheep farmer in Dumfriesshire, died after a long and active life. His last wish was that he should be buried in a certain field from where he had admired a fine view of his farm. That wish was granted by the relevant authorities. It is a fair bet that Robbie will be smiling down from the celestial pastures giving two fingers to legislative madness.