16 March 2001

NORTH-EAST

Pangs of guilt where it began

NORTH-EAST England faces a mixed bag of emotions as well the practicalities of dealing with the disease. The crisis began in this area but there is a sense of guilt that farmers in neighbouring Cumbria seem to be suffering its worst effects.

Those close to infected areas can only sit and wait for the disease to strike, feeling powerless to take any action other than obvious precautions. The situation seems out of control and government officials unable to help. Farmers also feel kicked by abattoirs offering lower prices for cattle and sheep while the cost of meat in the shops continues to climb.

In recent years, moves have been made to unite the industry and develop the idea that the abattoir is the farmers first customer in many cases. Closer links have been forged and progress had been made towards the idea that the two should work together. But the rift which has developed as the abattoirs hike up prices to survive may have caused irreparable damage to this relationship.

A number of smaller abattoirs have closed in the past decade. The foot-and-mouth outbreak has highlighted the service that these abattoirs provided the local community. It may be that the governments new rural investigation committee will find a way to reinstate at least some of them. Increased public awareness of the distances that livestock have to travel to slaughter may propel this decision.

One farmer in an infected area who was about to return sheep over-wintering on his lowland holding will now have to lamb the ewes himself. He says he lacks the experience to achieve the expected lambing percentages and is worried he will let down the owner. He is also worried that the ewes will be eating into silage stocks set aside for his beef herd.

Optimism has always been one of the farming communitys great strengths. For many, all that is left now is the hope that the crisis might bring public recognition for the difficult times all producers are suffering.

Wendy Owen