Infected sheep 'for sale in countryside'

For some farmers, the temptation to make a killing out of compensation is stronger than the will to fight disease
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The Independent Online

When Nuala Preston picked up the phone at her farmhouse in Wales, she thought the caller sounded just like a salesman. Did she want to buy a dead sheep, infected with foot and mouth disease? She slammed the phone down. "I told him to go forth and multiply," said Ms Preston, who breeds sheep, cattle and horses at Trefoel Farm in Pembrokeshire.

Ms Preston contacted the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) but was told nothing could be done without further evidence. She is convinced the offer was authentic. "I think it was genuine," she said. "I was so appalled by the whole thing."

While Ms Preston was not interested in the deal, for at least some farmers out there it would be a tempting offer. Pembrokeshire trading standards and local police are investigating the scam but have so far drawn a blank.

Perverse as it seems, a flock of infected sheep is worth an awful lot more to a farmer than a healthy one. With sheep fetching as little as £10 on the open market, the chance to claim compensation of up to £90 a ewe for diseased sheep is one that some unscrupulous farmers would jump at.

Brigadier Alex Birtwistle, the senior army officer in charge of the mass cull, was recorded telling a subaltern: "People are still transiting sheep illegally and there's strong anecdotal evidence to suggest that is the case ­ either to infect them so they can claim compensation or simply to keep sheep they haven't previously declared one step ahead of the cull process."

The suspicions have never gone away, although the Ministry of Agriculture, trading standards officers and police have lacked evidence. What is clear is that farmers whose animals have contracted foot and mouth have, on the whole, benefited financially. Compensation payments have now reached more than £900m, making cash millionaires out of some bigger landowners.

Then came last week's shock decision by the Government to suspend the £2m-a-day clean-up pending an inquiry into its spiralling cost. While farms in Scotland, where the clean-up was tightly controlled by local authorities, cost an average £30,000, ones in England cost, on average, three times that. Again rumours abound of scams perpetrated both by farmers, who can be given the job of cleaning up their own farms, and by private contractors. The pay rates for cleaning up farms, set by Defra, clearly allow scope for making money from the operation.

A list of payments obtained by The Independent on Sunday show, for example, farmers need work only four days a week to claim a weekly payment. They can also can buy pressure washers for £700 and then hire them back to Defra at £200 a week.

"The onus is completely on Defra to make sure they have got their figures right," said Stephen Dew of the National Farmers' Union. "Clearly the farmers are businessmen. They are going to clean the farms to the best of their ability, yes, but they are also going to recognise the opportunity of these rates and make the most of them."