The great livestock show ... with no livestock

It's the season for farmers to show their wares. But this is foot and mouth Britain, so the cows at county fairs are plastic
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The Independent Online

The bodyguards in suits and shades were bored. They could see no obvious threat as the Prince of Wales met fans and sympathised with a struggling dairy farmer.

"Hmm?" suggested one.

"Hmm," replied the other, elongating the sound. They were standing next to a milking machine at the first big agricultural gathering to be held since the foot and mouth crisis started.

The Prince was being received like a hero (not least because of the £500,000 he gave to help struggling farmers). There was no danger. The stone-faced men stood nose to nose, hands behind their backs, eyes on the crowd. They were unaware of being watched and thought nobody else could hear them. Their murmurs formed into a hushed but recognisable word: "Moo."

And that was the only time the sound was heard at the East of England Show. For the first time in its history this great festival of livestock has gone ahead without any livestock.

"Welcome to the British Farming Experience," said a sign at the entrance to the showground near Peterborough on Friday. Behind it was an enclosure in which piglets played around a black-and-white cow. Both they and it were made of plastic.

So were the animals in Old MacDonald's farm. The man himself was 30ft high, and wobbled as children threw themselves around his bouncy yard.

"Rare sight that," said a real farmer looking up at the jolly air-filled giant looming over the play area. "Don't often see a dairy man smiling."

A year ago more than 130,000 people paid to see cocky bulls, gleaming heifers, blow-dried ewes and scrubbed-up sows compete for prizes. This time no such animals were sent. Those that had not been culled could not be moved from their fields. Even if it had been possible to exhibit them the fearful farmers would have declined.

"This is as safe an area as you can get in England today," said Peter Horrell, whose 400 Holsteins were on farmland nearby. "The nearest outbreak is more than 100 miles away, but still farmers have only just started to feel comfortable about getting back together." There were disinfecting mats everywhere. "I'll never go back to the farm in the clothes I wore to come here."

He was dressed in suit and tie to meet the Prince of Wales, this year's show president, and officials from the farmers union. Mr Horrell's father had just resigned from the NFU in protest at its backing of a plan to reopen footpaths through land on which the family herd grazed. "We've been taking every precaution they advise, dipping and spraying this and that, hoping and trying to minimise the chances of ever getting the disease, and then they go and do this," he said. The cattle were in meadows by a river that attracted anglers from all over Britain. "They're going to be coming from Yorkshire and those places where foot and mouth is bad and there's nothing we can do."

The sign on an outdoor clothing stall caused hearts to jump. It had been driven down from Settle in Yorkshire, where many such businesses have been destroyed by the late outbreak. Otherwise the marketplace showed little sign of crisis. The Women's Institute were selling cakes and jam; cute little hounds napped at the Countryside Alliance stall, dreaming of fox blood; shire horses stamped and snorted; and bearded men with real-ale bellies snicked away at twigs in a skilful manner. They were making love spoons (the Prince stopped to look but did not buy), thatched roofs and wicker Moses baskets. Elsewhere there were seed drilling machines that looked like Kafkaesque instruments of torture; hot tubs that cost thousands of pounds; and boot-brushes in the shape of hedgehogs.

The livestock pens were empty and echoing, however, like the set of a bad science fiction movie. Bad science is what cattle farmers accuse the Government of peddling. A broken-down iron bedstead with a mattress had been abandoned where last year there would have been prize animals. A red rosette was pinned to a lonely cage containing a pair of white-shouldered starlings. Cocks crowed from a corner of the vast shed, as though expressing their owners' sense of betrayal.

Outside, the man from the ministry was on a walkabout. "People are clearly very anxious for a return to normality," said Elliot Morley, a junior minister in the new Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. "They are looking for a strong lead. We are over the worst now, and it has been the worst outbreak of foot and mouth in the world, but the tail will be long."

Farmers were finding it hard to cope with the diversification of the rural economy, he said. "It's not a question of reinventing the countryside. That is already happening."

There were signs of diversification everywhere. In the arena three sheepdogs without a herd to chase coaxed a gaggle of geese into a pen.

The future of the countryside depends on people like Wocko the Woodman, according to the Prince of Wales's advisers. Wyn Watkins, to use his real name, had been employed on the Knebworth Park estate since 1973, using skills that have been unfashionable since the Industrial Revolution.

The Prince was not giving interviews, but his people were keen to stress his efforts to bring traditional craftspeople together with others who can help to market their services. But Wocko already seemed to know that rich folk were prepared to pay handsomely for an oak gate, sweet chestnut fencing or a willow hurdle ­ particularly if it was made by a character in a straw boater and necktie who could play a mean folk tune on his gold-trimmed Hohner accordion.

The Prince's Trust helped Chris Southam to set up an educational project called the Milk Experience to teach children about dairy farming. "Some of them don't know what milk is made of or where it comes from," he said. They did after taking part in milking races, squeezing the rubber udders of cardboard cows.

Mr Southam has 45 Jerseys of his own but nowhere to put them out to pasture because of the number of tenant farms that are going bust and being sold off to big estate owners. "I don't know what I'm going to do with my cows," he said.

Peter Mortimer had the same problem with pigs. The Suffolk farmer was unable to sell any of his 200 sows for 19 weeks because of swine fever, then foot and mouth struck. He is still feeding animals that should have been sold long ago, and has no hope of compensation

"We are just living day to day," he said. "We are earning so little that the farm has not had to pay tax since Mr Blair was elected the first time. The only reason we have survived is because my wife goes out to work."

Gill Mortimer is a full-time junior schoolteacher. "Farmer's wives go out to work then come home to do all the things we have traditionally done. I keep all the books for the farm at night when I get in from school."

Back in the livestock pens a few teenagers were playing on a skateboard ramp. These were the people the East of England Show was trying to attract into agriculture. None of them wanted to be a farmer. "You're joking, aren't you?" said Andy, 15. "I want to make some money."