Nuclear cloud hangs over the hills

The radioactive legacy of Chernobyl persists on the sheep farms and smallholdings of Wales
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The Independent Online
The sinister imprint the Chernobyl disaster painted over Wales a decade ago still stains the Aran Mountains.

This Thursday sees the 10th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident, which spread radioactivity across Europe.

It dumped radioactive caesium on Esgair Garw, a farm near Dolgellau where Trebor Roberts' 1,000 sheep are still quarantined by government restrictions on movement and slaughter in order to keep suspect meat out of the food chain.

His is one of 390 farms with 220,000 sheep still under the Chernobyl cosh.

Farming the rugged and rain swept mountains has always been tough. The peak behind Mr Roberts' 1,000 acre holding touches 3,000ft. Chernobyl made life even tougher.

A magistrate and leading figure in the National Farmers' Union, Mr Roberts said: "The crisis was badly handled at the start. Officialdom was complacent, even arrogant. We were told the problem would be over in a few months."

The chronology bears out that criticism. Chernobyl exploded on Saturday, 26 April, 1986; over the weekend heavy radioactive rain soaked north Wales.

The deluge triggered monitoring alarms at Trawsfynydd nuclear power station a dozen miles across the mountains from the Roberts' farm.

It was not until 20 June that the Government admitted there was a problem and imposed restrictions which quarantined some 2 million sheep on about 5,000 farms in Wales.

Eventually, after a number of measures were floated - some of which could only be described as outlandish - a programme of monitoring and marking was introduced.

Now, sheep leaving a restricted area are scanned by Ministry of Agriculture officials using hand-held radiation counters. Failures are marked with streaks of apricot paint to show they cannot be sold for meat. The colour is regularly changed by decree.

Radioactivity falls when sheep are moved to cleaner pastures and buyers of marked sheep can have them monitored again until they pass.

Farmers are paid pounds 1.30 compensation for each scan. The real problem is in the marketing. Mr Roberts explained: "Say I need to send 30 animals to market. I have to give the Ministry seven days' notice. They come along and test and fail ten, so I can take 20 to market, by which time the price could move against me and as I'm only able to sell two-thirds I don't get the income I need."

From the window of the 200-year-old farmhouse, he looks across the valley to a neighbouring holding. "Only a mile or two over there the restrictions have been lifted" he says wistfully.

The trouble for farmers like Mr Roberts lies in the ground. Much of the soil on his 1,000 acres is peaty, holding the radioactivity tenaciously.

A long association with the land breeds an equally tenacious doggedness: "We have learned to live with the effects of the crisis. It's very bad, but then you think of the people still suffering at Chernobyl itself."

This month several deformed lambs have been born on the farm. One had no lower jaw, another was missing bones. A third delivered by Mr Roberts' son, Emlyn, seemed like a solid mass of gristle.

"We've not seen anything like that before," said Mr Roberts.