Valdemorillo: Feeble bulls and Spaniards go out in the midday sun

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The Independent Online

The choice between seats in "sol" or "sombre" was irrelevant at Spain's first bullfight of the season. The immediate concern was to dodge the winds from the sierra that chilled your fingers in what should be a sun-soaked fiesta.

The choice between seats in "sol" or "sombre" was irrelevant at Spain's first bullfight of the season. The immediate concern was to dodge the winds from the sierra that chilled your fingers in what should be a sun-soaked fiesta.

But the burly breeders, managers and matadors' agents in a huddle to supervise six fighting bulls being unloaded from the lorry into ringside pens were preoccupied by more serious worries. They fear BSE will ruin their livelihood.

Tiny, unprepossessing Valdemorillo, 19 miles north-west of Madrid, enjoys a brief burst of fame every February when a makeshift iron ring is rigged up for the opening event of the bullfighting calendar. It's an important occasion, eagerly awaited, but this year it was steeped in gloom tinged with panic.

Maximino Perez, organiser of the week's festivities, was devastated to learn, shortly before the first beast of the afternoon was let in, that the health authorities had decided all the bulls must be incinerated after they were killed by the matador's sword.

"It's terrible news, couldn't be worse. And on top of it we weren't told officially until today. It's a huge problem and the authorities were afraid to take a decision that'll cause enormous damage to the bullfighting world. I feel terrible. It's torn me in half."

Bulls are traditionally sold as butcher meat, providing prime steaks, chops and the Spanish delicacies of ear stew, tail and testicles. But EU rules dictating that meat from animals aged more than 30 months must be tested for BSE or else destroyed have shaken the bullfighting world. Fighting bulls are six years old and industry experts say that to test the 39,000 killed this season is impossible.

"I've lost all the money from selling the carcasses, and I have to pay the transport and incineration costs," Mr Perez said. "I'm ruined, and they've offered no compensation."

But the bulls weren't up to much, said my benchmates Pedro and Ramon who had travelled by bus from Burgos to support their local matador, Jose Ignacio Ramos. "Feeble, no class," they grumbled, as bull after bull ambled about and occasionally stumbled muzzle first into the sand. One had to be hauled by the tail to make it stand.

This was day one, and BSE was already making its contribution to the rich repertoire of taurine insults. "That one's got vaca loca [mad-cow]" Ramon shouted, in half-homage to a Ricky Martin song. "Another one for the incinerator," bawled an enthusiastic woman behind me, laden with gold bangles. "Send it to the crematorium, it's sick."

Steam snorted from the bulls' nostrils as they laboured in the wintry air, but there was little excitement, despite squeals of encouragement from small children thrilled at the gore and the howling trumpets. Jose Ignacio Ramos managed a reasonable show, prompting applause that earned him an ear. The young matador strode round the ring clutching aloft his severed trophy, a fistful of Specified Risk Material glistening palely in the fading light. That too had to be incinerated, instead of being slung into the crowd in triumph.

Increasingly, bulls have been falling over in the ring, prompting suspicions that they may be suffering from BSE. Joaquin Vidal, Spain's top bull commentator, said: "I always thought the bulls were drugged, but the taurine world is corrupt and closed and no one speaks openly.

"We must analyse the animals to find out what's wrong. But now with incineration we'll never know whether they're drugged, ill, have shaved horns or anything. It's a rotten business."

I wonder how much longer the corrida, Spain's national fiesta, will last?

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