Millions more sheep must die as farmers use up winter food

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Kevin Barber's sheep are starving. Emaciated ewes stand beneath a barn roof, hobbling in the gloom on matchstick legs. Their condition is deteriorating as fast as their food supplies dwindle.

The farmer thought he had escaped the ravages of foot and mouth, but he was wrong. For Mr Barber and thousands of farmers like him, the mass slaughter is just beginning.

The fields around his farm in the heart of Devon are bare, the barns have been emptied of winter feed and strict movement controls mean that, for his sheep, there is no chance of escape.

Mr Barber's sheep are not infected. But in the coming days, 156 ewes and lambs – one-tenth of his flock at Lovaton Farm – will be taken to an abattoir and killed to prevent them suffering a lingering, painful death by starvation.

Devon should have been declared officially foot and mouth free tomorrow – it has been three months since the county's last confirmed outbreak at a farm in North Tawton, just down the road from Mr Barber's. But Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State for the Environment, fearing renewed outbreaks, ordered last week that movement controls be maintained.

So, Mr Barber, 37, his bank overdraft £20,000 higher than last year, is facing a new foot and mouth nightmare. His sheep should have gone to market in the spring but Mr Barber was unable to sell them and is now unable to move them. So he is stuck with 30 per cent too many animals. The grass is fast running out, and there is practically no silage or hay for the winter. The grazing land, covering 193 acres of rolling countryside, is now "bare like a billiard table".

The experience is repeated across the country. The RSPCA predicts that 100,000 sheep will have to be slaughtered in Devon, and another 2.2 million "light" lambs – those too thin to be sold for meat – across the country.

"I honestly thought we would get to this stage of the summer and the worst would be behind us," Mr Barber said. "It's a case of survival now. I just hope we can get the sheep through the winter."

Mr Barber approached the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), asking it to slaughter part of his stock under its Livestock Welfare (Disposal) Scheme. Already, 1.6 million animals have been culled for welfare reasons and nearly £200m paid out in compensation. Many, including the National Farmers Union, fear this autumn and winter will see an even bloodier massacre.

Steve Donohue, an RSPCA inspector who has been working flat out checking the condition of livestock across Devon, said: "The situation is going to deteriorate rapidly as winter approaches. There are a lot of farms overstocked and short of winter feed."

Peter Wastenage, 31, who has an organic cattle farm 20 minutes' drive from Exeter and 15 miles from the nearest outbreak, is close to tears as he listens to his precious herd "shouting" for food. Cows that should have years of milking left in them will be culled to cure the overstocking on Tidwell Farm. He currently has about 100 cows too many out of a herd of 384.

Ordinarily, he would sell the surplus dairy cattle for as much as £1,800 an animal in the spring sales. This year, no dealer would take them and, in desperation, Mr Wastenage has applied to Defra for them to be culled for as little as £300 an animal.

His problem in feeding the cattle is compounded by the need to keep the herd's organic status. That means finding winter feed, grass and silage from fields that have not been sprayed with herbicides, insecticides and chemical fertilisers.

Milk yields are down by £5,000 a month while it is costing £2,500 a month to buy in organic feed. The extra 100 cattle means milking takes two hours longer.