British rural residents - living the life of Job?

The outbreak of another livestock disease triggers new bans on beef exports and a siege mentality.

The British countryside, a cherished icon, is under siege.

At least it feels that way to many farmers and even urbanites who frequent the rolling hills and famously idyllic cottage towns on the weekends.

Take Maureen Tulip. She has been living in self-imposed isolation on her farm in northern England since the discovery of foot-and-mouth disease last week.

"The vast majority of people are trying to make a living under very difficult conditions," she says. She chokes on tears when she considers what could happen to her 250 head of cattle. "The worst aspect is the prospect of having all the animals destroyed."

The outbreak of this contagious livestock disease is the latest in a series of blows to rural Britain.

Farmers were just recovering from the "mad cow" disease, which has cost the British economy nearly $10 billion and devastated the beef industry's reputation. Floods, diseases, and a plans to ban fox hunting all contribute to a sense that farmers are living the Old Testament life of Job. In the past two years, by one estimate, some 40,000 farmers and farmworkers have quit the agriculture industry.

Exports of British meat and livestock have been banned in the face of concerns this latest scourge might spread to continental Europe.

The first case of the disease was diagnosed last week. By Thursday, there were at least 30 diagnosed cases across the United Kingdom. Mindful of how the risks of "mad cow" disease were downplayed when it was first detected, the government here has responded swiftly, banning livestock movements around the country and incinerating thousands of animals.

"We believe that the right way to deal with this is definitely the approach that we are adopting, which is to isolate the disease and exterminate it where it is found," British Agriculture Minister Nick Brown said.

But the safety measures could, temporarily, compound the bunker mentality in the countryside - and beyond.

* Farming advocates are urging the government to postpone national elections, which were expected to be held this spring. They say that campaigners and voters tramping through the countryside could spread the disease. Similarly, the government is considering postponing a census scheduled for April. The only time that a census was called off was during World War II.

* The Ramblers Association has advised its 130,000 members not to walk in affected areas. Localities have been given the authority to close rural footpaths to the public. Anglers have been discouraged from going into the countryside, and several parks have been closed to protect livestock that graze there.

* Sporting events have been cancelled. An international rugby match in Wales was called off after the Irish government expressed concern that fans might return with the disease.

* Many schoolchildren in rural areas have stayed home, and some farms are cordoned off.

* Celebrations in Britain for the 60th birthday of Spam have been postponed in respect for farmers here.

* Out of sensitivity to concerns about spreading the disease, the Countryside Alliance canceled a huge march on London to protest against perceived insensitivity to rural issues from the urban, political elite. An expected ban on fox hunting was the impetus for the rural movement.

Farmers have largely welcomed the government's measures, but they are keenly aware of the high price. The last outbreak of foot-and-mouth in Britain more than 30 years ago saw the wholesale slaughter of almost half a million livestock. Unlike "mad cow" disease, which in extremely rare instances affects human health, foot-and-mouth isn't considered risky to people. It afflicts cloven-hoofed animals.

Sean Rickard, former chief economist of the National Farmers Union, challenges the image of the countryside under siege. "English country life is thriving and continuing," says Mr. Rickard. "You'd be hard put to say it's dying or collapsing."

Rickard says farming accounts for only 4 percent of economic activity in rural areas and just 6 percent of British employment. According to Rickard, the unemployment rate in rural areas is half that of cities, and more city-dwellers are moving to the country. "I do accept that the foot-and-mouth epidemic is a disaster for those farmers affected and puts a cloud over the industry," he says. "But this doesn't affect the rest of agriculture. We're going to recover from it."

A commentator in The Guardian notes that "an infected cow does not suffer or die - it just becomes less productive ... the difference between profit and loss. Put simply, foot-and-mouth is an economic disease."

On the Continent, there is a widespread suspicion - and resentment - that British agriculture is the source of livestock epidemics. But Peter King of the National Farmers Union suggests that high testing standards are the reason diseases appear here first. "It's probably because we're very cautious, so we picked ["mad cow" disease] up earlier than our mainland partners," he says. Others point to a food industry that will sacrifice quality for profits.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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