Ministers in U-turn over cattle cull policy

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The Independent Online
The Ministry of Agriculture has been instructing vets to slaughter the wrong cattle in the BSE cull and has now been forced to change its policy in a move which could cost the taxpayer millions of pounds.

Ministers, have instructed officials to make a U-turn on the selective culling of animals at risk from BSE in an effective admission that disease- free cattle have been killed - while others potentially carrying it have survived.

These latest alterations have caused widespread dissatisfaction among many ministry vets, who are carrying the brunt of the changes, and will now have to review many herds they have already examined. Valuers will also need to revisit some farms.

The different approach in the culling, which was originally designed to help restore European confidence after the outbreak of BSE, was decided by the new team of ministers early in June. The information was circulated to ministry vets late last week, and to farmers over the weekend.

The extra costs will come from increased clerical and staff costs, payments to valuers and extra "ex-gratia" payments for disruption and loss of breeding stock to those farmers whose animals were killed unnecessarily. Some sources suggest the extra cost could be up to pounds 3m, though the ministry yesterday stressed that it was far too soon to estimate.

One senior vet told The Independent: "There is a lot of confusion and in some places the reviewing of herds has been stopped while we sort out what's going on."

The new culling procedures, which only affect those herds with year-round calving, come after the slaughter so far of around 6,500 animals.

Farmers are paid the value of the animal, the cost of nine-tenths of a replacement, plus a dislocation allowance.

Under the old procedures, those cattle selected for slaughter- a "cohort"- were chosen according to the calendar period in which they were born, the period running from 1 July to 30 June.

This meant that cattle thought to be at risk born in, say June, would be lumped together with those born up to 11 months beforehand, and who may have had different feeding and other experiences. But cattle born just a few weeks later in July might be excluded from the cull, even though they are close in age and experience to the "at-risk" animal.

In its written briefing to regional vets, the ministry accepts the earlier arrangement caused "anomalies" and a cohort will now consist of cattle born six months either side of the BSE case.

It adds: "We propose to write to all farmers who may be affected to advise them of the change in policy and of their right to make representations to us on their case where they feel they have been adversely affected by the change. If the animals have already been slaughtered an ex-gratia payment may be appropriate if it can be demonstrated that a financial loss was incurred as a result."

Ian Gardiner, director of policy for the National Farmers Union, welcomed the new policy as more sensible, and one they had previously urged, but regretted the route by which the decision was reached.

A ministry spokeswoman said: "We believe this system is fairer for farmers."