Carcasses littering a bucolic idyll

Click to follow
The Independent Online
DUCKS and white geese wandered across the grass. A donkey grazed near some goats. In the next field, a lamb, bottle-fed perhaps, rushed to inspect the strangers at the gate. This was no factory farm, but traditional, low-intensity agriculture, presently in fashion. It looked the very picture of a bucolic idyll, but the emotions recollected by Chief Inspector Douglas Davidson of the RSPCA as he watched the scene were anything but tranquil.

'In those sheds last year,' he said, gesturing at the back of the farm, 'we found 41 animals so weak, so emaciated that they had to be destroyed at once - sheep that fell over when you touched them. There have been dehorned cattle found here with cupfuls of pus and maggots coming out of their wounds. In March last year we had to take 416 starving in-lamb ewes into care. And yet we still can't prevent this farmer from owning stock.'

Cruelty to animals, like cruelty to children, is generally imagined to be at its worst in cramped cities. Yet according to the RSPCA, reports of cruelty, neglect, and carelessness causing injury to animals in the countryside are soaring. The latest figures show that between 1990 and 1991 convictions for cruelty to farm beasts rose by a third. And the worst areas are not the remote corners of Wales or the wild Northumbrian fells, or even Cheshire - where a pack of more than 30 collies kept by a smallholder savaged a small girl this week - but the fertile and cosy lands of middle England, including Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

It was near Winslow, Bucks, that Mr Davidson was gazing unhappily over a gate at the scene of apparent rural bliss on Brook Farm, owned by Colin French. Mr French's neglect of stock in the past has been so severe that he has been banned by magistrates from keeping several different kinds of farm animal for 15 years. And yet he still lives in his farmhouse and stock of the banned types still range his fields.

'Unfortunately,' said Mr Davidson as we drove past another field containing horses, 'there's a great loophole in the law.' Under the 1911 Protection of Animals Act, no matter how cruel you may be to animals, you cannot be banned from owning them - only from keeping and having charge of them. All that a farmer banned from keeping animals has to do is to install a stock keeper. Once he was banned, Mr French did so. In October last year his stockman was also found guilty by magistrates of 26 cases of causing unnecessary suffering to animals by failing to feed them sufficiently. The stockman's lawyer said in his defence: 'He has no power to order food or to control French, who owns the land.'

Farm managers are now in place on Brook Farm. And so Mr French's stock is still being farmed - perfectly legally, it seems - on his land.

Mr Davidson shook his head. 'It must be against the spirit of the law, even if it isn't against the letter,' he said. Just then his radio called him away to pastures new. 'Dead sheep reported left in a hedge,' said a voice from the control room. He swung the car around. 'It's not just traditional farmers either,' he said. 'Hobby farmers can be a problem too. We've had Good Life types keeping maggot-infested sheep out of pure ignorance. Last February we had a property consultant in the Thames Valley in court for towing a shirehorse foal out of the womb with his wife's BMW.'

Most farmers are responsible and humane. But agriculture has its share of cruel, inadequate, or careless workers - with an unusually wide scope to inflict suffering. Whether the increased reports of cruelty are due to worsening financial pressures on farmers, or merely more awareness among the public, is impossible to tell.

Some of Mr Davidson's colleagues in other parts of the country believe lack of money is often at the heart of the problem. The RSPCA's Inspector John Oxley, who patrols the Yorkshire Dales, said that frequently hill farmers were trying to save on vets' bills. 'There's one farmer, aged 73, I found had a pup that could hardly stand. That'll have to see a vet, I said, but 'ah, no', he said, 'give it a jab and it'll be all right'. The bottom of its leg was completely dead.'

He, too, finds the law unsatisfactory, with low fines and inadequate bans.

'Eighteen months ago I had a complaint over a farmer near Settle about the conditions he was keeping his collies in. We found 24 of them, some of them kept in the pitch dark. They weren't starved, but their bedding consisted of fleas and bones from the dead carcasses they were fed on. Some of them were being held without water; the only fluid they were getting was off the carcasses. And that man and his stockman were allowed by the magistrates to keep five dogs each, so there's still 10 dogs up there, and, legally, we can't do a thing about it.'

Mr Davidson agreed. 'What do you have to do to be banned for life?' he asked, searching through the country lanes for the right field. In the end he found the dead sheep by smell. Unburied for many days, it was a mere mat of wool and bones. 'Up on the fells,' he said, 'you can understand dead sheep being missed. But here - this is just a few fields from the farmhouse.'

The farmhouse, when he found it, was a shambles of rusting tractors and decayed farm buildings. The farmer's wife was apologetic but full of excuses. 'That'll just have dropped off the tractor,' she said, as he held up a swathe of plastic baling twine from the field. Mr Davidson sighed as he drove back down the track: 'They can't be checking their fields. That'll be one more farm to keep an eye on over the winter months.'

For the testing time is now on its way. The long winter months lie ahead, when animals need supplementary feeding and extra vigilance.

The tale of Mr French is not yet over. Counsel at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are discussing his position. What the RSPCA want to see is an amendment to the law.

'There's no one hopes more than me,' said Mr Davidson, 'that the stock on Mr French's farm are now in good hands. They've had a fine summer's grazing, and so far as I can see from the roadside (an injunction taken out by Mr French prevents the RSPCA from entering his land), they're in reasonable to good shape. I hope they look the same in February.'

And with that he sped off to deal with a scorpion reported loose in the wilds of Otmoor.

(Photograph omitted)