Country Matters: From Thursday your cat must wear a muzzle

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The Independent Online
FROM next Thursday, under the terms of European decree EC/93/499, the house mouse (Mus musculus) is to become a protected animal, and every householder in Britain will have to make arrangements to ensure its preservation.

On the same day, a supplementary decree from the Department of the Environment will ban the use of spring traps. Henceforth, cage traps alone may be employed - and then only if environmental health inspectors have declared a state of infestation.

Regulations for the detention and transport of captured mice are published separately in a 28-page pamphlet, Rodent Welfare in the Nineties, available from local offices of the Department of the Environment, at pounds 1.50. The booklet also gives details of sites, officially approved by the DoE in consultation with English Nature, the Forestry Commission and the Council for the Protection of Rural England, on to which captive mice may be released.

From the same day, domestic cats with a penchant for mousing will be required to wear muzzles at all times, and health inspectors will be empowered to make unannounced visits for the purpose of ensuring that the rule is observed. They will also have the right summarily to remove any cat found in breach of the new regulations.

Next Thursday, you may have noticed, is 1 April. Is this, then, an April Fool joke? Only just. So ridiculous and Draconian are environmental decrees from Brussels becoming, many country people can scarcely believe that the latest pronouncements are genuine.

Consider the following scenario. Two or three times a week, Chas Wright and Mel Griffiths, who produce marvellous ale in the Gloucestershire village of Uley, shovel half a ton of spent barley out of the mash tun in the brewery. Then they load it on to a truck and deliver it to Priding Farm, 10 miles away on the bank of the Severn, where it is fed to cattle and Old Spot pigs.

These brewers' grains are a valuable feedstuff. Although much of their sugar has been extracted in the brewing processes, they still contain substantial amounts of protein. Because the farmers, Jasper Ely and his partner, Pete Smithies, are friends of the brewery, they get the grain for nothing, and it makes a valuable contribution to their economy.

From the brewers' point of view the arrangement is equally worthwhile, for they must have somewhere to dispose of the bulky by-product that, week in, week out, their business churns out.

Similar arrangements exist at hundreds of other breweries, most of them much larger. Farmers generally expect to pay from pounds 15 to pounds 25 a ton for the grain, and at least a million tons of brewers' and distillers' grains are eaten by British farm animals every year.

Yet from next Thursday, this comfortable system will be destroyed by a single diktat from Brussels and Whitehall. On and after 1 April, licences will be required for the disposal of all waste products, among which brewers' grains have now been classed. Not only receivers of waste, but also people who haul it will be obliged to register and to pay considerable sums for the privilege.

In our corner of the woods, Jasper will have to find pounds 1,800 a year if he wants to carry on receiving the brewery's output, and even Chas will have to pay pounds 90 a year for being allowed to deliver it to him.

Rather than fork out, hundreds of farmers will almost certainly say, 'Stuff it', or words to that effect. Ways will have to be found of disposing of soggy grain mountains. Expensive drying facilities will have to be set up, and the country's two-and-a-half million mobile disposal units will have to eat something else.

Another April Fool joke? Not at all - although I have exaggerated slightly. Incredible as it sounds, the regulation I have outlined has been promulgated and, still more incredible, it was to have come into force on 1 April.

But there has been such vigorous lobbying of the DoE and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food by the Allied Brewery Traders' Association and the National Farmers' Union, among others, that common sense seems to have broken through at the last minute. Although farmers look like having to register as receivers, they probably will not have to pay. For the moment, everyone is waiting anxiously for a definitive ruling.

Is it not terrible that bureaucrats can fail utterly to distinguish between by-products that are useful and waste products that are no good to anyone? As one of the leading lobbyists remarked: 'The incredible thing is that this legislation could ever have been drafted in the form it was. How can people write laws if they do not have the slightest understanding of the basic processes involved?'

The drafting of laws is one thing, the implementation of them another. Here, too, common sense is growing scarcer by the minute.

Consider another scenario. The Woolpack Inn in the Gloucestershire town of Stonehouse has stood on the same site since 1610. In nearly 400 years there has been no record of anyone being poisoned by the beer there.

In the cellar - as in a thousand other pubs - the barrels rest on wooden trams, or ribs (also known as the stillage). Along comes an environmental health inspector who informs the landlord, Brian Hemming, that naked wood is a very dangerous commodity to have in a food-storage area, and tells him that he must paint the trams over.

The landlord replies that this would be pointless. Every time a full cask is heaved up on to the trams, the weight squashes the wood slightly, so the paint would crack and fly off. Besides, the beer never comes in contact with the trams, so why worry?

This is not good enough for the health officer, who insists that if the wood cannot be painted, it must be sealed with varnish. So Mr Hemming solemnly varnishes his trams and the wedges that chock the barrels in position - and what happens? The wedges, now slippery, will not stay in place, but fly out. The barrels shift, the beer becomes cloudy and the punters complain.

The landlord's solution is to tack small sheets of sandpaper to the undersides of the wedges and, although this stabilises things for the moment, the health officer warns that it can be regarded only as a temporary expedient . . .

Another April Fool joke? Far from it. The story is true in every detail - and this kind of idiotic insistence on meeting the letter of the law is threatening to poison the entire community. In pubs, shops and restaurants the arrogance of the health officers is creating a feeling of desperation. No wonder the economy is in such a state, people say, if ever-increasing numbers of busybodies are being paid to go around enforcing regulations that are manifestly futile.

The question is, how can this kind of nonsense be stopped? Not by the Agriculture minister, who is clearly all at sea. By the Prime Minister, then? To his credit, John Major has recently shown that he is aware of the bureaucrat menace. One can only hope that he follows through his remarks with action.

You may think I am joking about mice, but Brussels has already done its best to protect those out-and-out murderers, the magpie and the carrion crow, and unless someone takes a tight grip, it will soon be a Euro-crime to kill a fly.