Leaving the herd behind to express a shared fury

A despairing farmer says some people are now resorting to bribery

Will Forrester boarded a coach in Telford at 3.30am to travel to the farmers' demonstration at the Tory conference. Not much, apart from helping a calf into the world, would normally get him up in the middle of the night. And like most of the 50 Shropshire farmers on the coach, voluble public protest is not in his character.

Mr Forrester, 33, farms 220 acres near Whitchurch. Acquired by his father, a former farm labourer, it is a family concern employing one man and concentrating on beef and sheep.

"March 20 was a big shock to us all," he said yesterday, recalling the impact of the ministerial statement which spawned the crisis. "We didn't quite know what was happening. Every time these BSE scare stories had come along in the past there had been a drop in the beef price but it was temporary. This time it was hard to see how it would recover." It hasn't.

Mr Forrester usually has about 200 cattle on the farm at one time - a small herd of 25 suckler cows, their calves and other bought-in beef animals being fattened up on cereal mixes under cover.

"We didn't rush to sell any but took seven or eight to the auctions at Market Drayton in May." They sold for between pounds 120 and pounds 200 a head less than a year earlier and less than it had cost to rear and feed them. Mr Forrester's reaction, in a word, was, "sick".

Like most farmers, he also has complaints about the slaughter scheme for animals more than 30 months old. Of the eight he has registered for the cull only one has gone to the abattoir. "You can get rid of them if you're prepared to pay people back-handers - commissions to abattoir agents - but we're stuck with them."

Doubtful of ministers' claims that the backlog will be cleared by Christmas, he faces the prospect of feeding and housing non-productive cows into the winter as well beef animals to be sold at a loss.

Even if he gets an old suckler cow into the cull, the compensation will be some pounds 400 down on the auction price he would have got a year ago for a 1,000kg animal.

Then a week ago Douglas Hogg added insult to injury for Mr Forrester by announcing a 10 per cent cut in the compensation amounts for cull cattle. Effective from 14 October, the change applies to cattle in the backlog, many of which have been listed for slaughter for months.

"We have the sheep and I think I'll survive," Mr Forrester said as the farmers started to drift back to their coaches. Except for the depression of market days, he still derives a deep satisfaction from the job and will not quit.

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