No sign of panic down on the farm

PROFILE: Martin Burtt: How has the cattle industry been coping this week? Peter Popham looks through one farmer's eyes
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The Independent Online
After a week like the one just gone, even a character as phlegmatic as Martin Burtt, North Yorkshire livestock farmer, is getting a little rattled. Each day brings news of more schools giving up beef and experts declaring their anxieties; beef prices in some markets have plummeted by about pounds 80 an animal, down more than 11 per cent on last week. Mr Burtt and his cattle-farming colleagues around the country have had to contemplate the prospect of their industry collapsing. "It's just unthinkable, the nightmare scenario," he says. "There would be ruination in the countryside."

Mr Burtt is at once both an ordinary and an eminent figure in livestock farming. His 250-acre farm amid the wild beauty of Glaisdale in the North Yorkshire moors is "small to medium", as he puts it, on a par with hundreds of others around the country. But his concern for the welfare of the industry has propelled him to the forefront of its deliberative bodies: he is chairman of the National Farmers Union's livestock committee, a member of the Beef and Lamb Council, and the NFU's beef farming representative on the board of Farm Assured British Beef and Lamb, an organisation dedicated to raising the standards of meat sold in shops. Why bother with such tasks? "I'd like them to be able to put on my tombstone that the industry was safe in my hands," he says.

As far as Mr Burtt is concerned, the Armageddon of industry meltdown is still a subject reserved for nightmares, not for sober daytime contemplation. "There is concern but not panic. The last thing we want is panic."

But five years ago, during the last BSE scare, demand for beef fell 20 per cent and consumption levels have only just recovered. The resurgence of BSE-related fears gives Mr Burtt "frustration and annoyance", he says, "the same as many other farmers. The media's been harping on about BSE with a very slanted point of view. The other side isn't getting put."

The "other side" is what farmers have been reiterating since the ban in November 1989 on the use of "specified offal" - bits of cattle including brain and spinal cord - in products for human consumption."Since the offal ban," Mr Burtt says, "if procedures are carried out correctly in the slaughterhouse, there is no risk. I have no doubt whatsoever that beef is perfectly safe and nutritious."

Yet the doubts remain. And research into the problem limps from year to year: in his recent Budget, Ken Clarke announced that the Neuropathogenesis Unit in Edinburgh, one of the key research bodies, is to have its funding cut. "We've got to pump money into these people who know, to get them to come up with results as fast as possible," Mr Burtt says, with some frustration. "It would be irresponsible to starve them of funds. If the Government want to put their money where their mouth is, they should fund them to the full. We've got to get an answer to this, and the only way is to keep the research going."

Martin Burtt was brought up in the Yorkshire Dales, near where he farms today. He went to Stoneyhurst public school, but decided early that he wanted to farm. He left school after O-levels and spent three years labouring on nearby farms before going to agricultural college. "I suppose farming's in the blood," he says. "It missed a couple of generations, now it's coming out in me." In 1967, he bought for pounds 16,500 the farm where he and his family - a daughter and triplet boys - still live.

Today, that farm is worth more than pounds 250,000. Much else has changed, too. Before the BSE problem crashed down on them, the biggest challenge Britain's cattle farmers faced was EU bureaucracy and quotas. "In 1984, milk quotas were introduced. Since then, we've had quotas on beef and sheep, too. As a result, everything we produce must be of the highest quality," he says.

That tendency has been reinforced by a sea change in the market. When Mr Burtt started out, his market consisted of hundreds of family butchers' shops; now the livestock industry, worth about pounds 10bn per year, is dominated by the big supermarket chains. Nationwide, the amount of land devoted to beef farming may have shrunk by a fifth since the war, but 25 per cent more beef cows are produced. "The animals are bigger and better quality, too," says Mr Burtt. Beef sales last year generated pounds 1.86bn and exports pounds 500m.

With his 60 head of beef and 90 of dairy cattle, Martin Burtt represents a tiny but typical fraction of this industry. Last year, there were 73,600 beef cow and 46,200 dairy cow holdings in the country, with nearly 12 million cattle and calves among them. The industry employs about 100,000 people - a vast reduction over the past 50 years; Mr Burtt and his two assistants (one part time) account for three of them.

When BSE first appeared, in 1986, it was "just something we heard about in the media, like anyone else," he says. "I just hoped it wouldn't affect my herd, or anyone else's."

The agent believed to have caused it, the sheep brain disease scrapie, got into the feed that farmers fed to dairy cattle. The fact that this contained fragments of both sheep and cow flesh didn't bother Mr Burtt: "At the time, it was seen as an extremely cheap and nutritious form of feed. Nobody thought there was anything wrong with it.

"The Government predicted the number of cattle with BSE would fall after it banned the feed, and eventually it did. It's been a slow decline though - many farmers had hundreds of tons of feed in storage when the ban was introduced, and they weren't going to throw it all away."

Mr Burtt, like most dairy farmers and 15 per cent of beef farmers, has had BSE on his farm - "three or four cases in the past three or four years," he says. As numbers began falling last year, Mr Burtt started to breathe easier.

This weekend, the Burtts will sit down to their customary beef joint without a qualm; next week, they will eat beefburgers as usual. Mr Burtt knows what he's doing. "You get used to your cows when you spend all day with them, you know them as individuals, almost by name."

He enjoys a degree of certainty the rest of us can only crave.