Without mass slaughter, the effects on farmers and abattoirs would be catastrophic. However, farmers and a senior MLC source warned that Douglas Hogg, the Minister of Agriculture, went too far in suggesting a policy of slaughtering herds over 30 months old to ease the BSE threat to humans.
They claimed the destruction of 40 per cent of the cattle would decimate the beef industry. It would wipe out the breeding stock overnight and have a disastrous impact on milk supplies. Only an extensive compensation package would rescue their livelihoods.
A spokesman for the Meat and Livestock Commission said it was imperative to restore public confidence in British beef. "Whatever needs to be done must be done. It is something the industry is going to have to face up to. Slaughtering all those animals born before a certain date is one option. It is frustrating for the industry and worrying for the consumer."
He said most of the destruction of 4.5 million animals would be unnecessary because only a fraction were likely to be infected with BSE, but admitted the industry would have to accept such slaughter to regain public confidence.
Brian Frith, a beef cattle breeder with a 1,000-acre farm in Romney Marsh, Kent, said the proposal to destroy cattle over 30 months old would halt the production of beef for two or three years. "It will put us out of business if we do not get adequate compensation. There will be no doubt about that."
He said the Government proposal would wipe out two-thirds of his herd. The loss of 80 pedigree breeding females, at pounds 2,000 a cow, would cost him pounds 160,000.
Mr Frith, who has never had a case of BSE on his farm, said farmers would also lose out as they waited for calves to reach the right breeding age. "We would have between two and three years where we would not be producing at the level we are now. It would not just be a question of just financial compensation for the cows we lose, it would be a question of compensation for the loss of earnings over the three-year period."
A senior source at the MLC claimed the Government proposal would devastate milk supplies. He said: "Dairy cows begin producing milk after two years. If cattle over 30 months are going to be slaughtered, there will be herds which have only provided up to six months of milk. It is not economically viable.
"One option is to allow them to carry on providing milk until they are about six years old. Then they could be destroyed. BSE is not transmitted to milk, so there is no danger. That way we would not damage the milk supply."
Farmers also warned of a devastating effect on rural economies. Pembrokeshire farmer Daphne Ferrier, with a herd of 80 prize Herefords, said: "So many farms have never even seen a case of BSE. It will be so tragic if years of work by so many people is needlessly destroyed."
Stuart Gemmill, Suffolk NFU chairman, today warned the Government: "It's a very complex problem which will need to be thought through very carefully. It's impossible to say how much dairy farmers would lose if herds were slaughtered."Reuse content