Wish you were here?

Foot and mouth disease is ravaging the countryside bringing more
heartache to adults and children who already suffer severe poverty,
and poor social services, writes Alison Taylor.

I live in north west Wales, where the mood is as fearful and
sombre as the ugly pall of smoke that hung over the Anglesey fields
for three days last week when thousands of slaughtered animals were

This week, in mid-Wales, 10-year-old Lottie Jones stood in the
yard of her parents’ farm screaming in anguish because the pedigree
cattle she had known since babyhood had to die. The slaughterman
refused to begin the shooting until she had gone away to stay with

The last serious outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 1967
resulted in the loss of 0.08 per cent of the national herd.
Official figures on 12 March 2001 put 0.04 per cent of the national
herd at risk, and although that percentage has since risen, in such
terms, the problem appears less significant.

In real terms, as Lottie’s mother so poignantly testified in
The Times (15 March), the disease (and this is a virulent
strain) is an unmitigated tragedy.

Far beyond the sites of infection, the disease is striking
financial body blows. After confirmation of the first outbreak at
the Anglesey abattoir, almost the whole island as well as hundreds
of square miles of adjoining mainland were declared an exclusion

Snowdonia became a no-go area, with tourism, its biggest
industry, reportedly losing £7 million per week (Daily
, 13 March), but as early as 3 March, the Daily
estimated that 1,500 local jobs were already lost or
under threat.

My local stables are a typical casualty: forced to close
although miles from any infection site, staff have been laid off
and the two adults, two children and 30 horses dependent on income
from the business are now existing on thin air: what is deemed
consequential loss attracts no compensation.

It is now impossible to discuss rural life while ignoring foot
and mouth disease or the fact that the wretchedness facing
Anglesey’s farmers and Lottie’s family is being replicated across
the UK. But, if nothing else, this disease has shown up the true
plight of our rural communities.

In Challenging the Rural Idyll, a report by NCH and the
Countryside Agency, deprived people in rural England describe a
life where everything is poor: income, housing, employment, public
transport, access to shops, access to medical, welfare and support
services, and the whole quality of life.

For children, things get worse rather than better, despite 1.2
million having been lifted out of poverty since the present
government was elected. Their life chances are diminishing, they
are prone to abuse alcohol and drugs, boredom and hopelessness
drive them into crime, while their parents fight enemies other than
simple poverty.

Farmers were excluded from the governmental cull on gun
ownership, but now, they are being urged towards voluntary
surrender of their weapons lest they feel compelled to turn them on

In 1992, Oswestry farmer Brian Oakley, a father of two, did just
that, but the gun misfired. He struggled on until 2 March this
year, when he hung himself. At the best of times, mental illness,
and particularly depression, is a genuine hazard of rural life, the
by-product of isolation, of fearing the worst in the never-ending
war of attrition with Mother Nature, but agriculture has now risen
high on the risk-list of occupations. Currently, the Samaritans and
other counselling networks are inundated.

I was brought up in a remote area, and well know the downside of
rural life: that so little has improved in the past half-century is
a disgrace in a country as rich as ours. Country dwellers spend
proportionately more on home heating and transport from wages that
are generally well below the national average of £410 –
indeed, most people of my acquaintance, including young graduates,
are lucky to earn half that.

People still make arduous journeys for hospital treatment, while
Wales still does not have a children’s hospital. Schools, shops,
surgeries, banks, benefit offices and even court services vanish
into the maw of “centralisation”, leaving derelict spaces in the
middle of small communities.

Children in care far from home sometimes face abandonment by
parents who can only afford rare visits and social workers whose
mileage allowances have long been governed by financial

The enfeebled economy of rural Britain suffers exponential
losses at each little blip in the national economy. Long after the
brutal scenes of animal slaughter have faded from television
screens and urban memory, the legacy of foot and mouth will blight
the countryside. Even fewer jobs will exist, more young people will
be driven away in search of work, and less money will be yielded by
local taxation to meet the needs of a population increasingly
composed of older people, the unwaged, and the very young.

The human cost of that legacy to the many children like Lottie
Jones is incalculable.

Alison Taylor is a novelist, a former senior child care
worker and the winner of the 1996 Community Care Readers’

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