‘It took a long time to get back the confidence we lost to BSE’

BSE, commonly known as “Mad Cow Disease” infected more than 180,000 cattle in the UK and 4.4m animals were slaughtered during the eradication programme.

Andrew Pemberton with his cattle at Birks Farm
Andrew Pemberton with his cattle at Birks Farm

This meant a huge body blow and misery for thousands of livestock farmers.

Today, as part of our series “CJD: The Hidden Tragedy” Investigative Reporter AASMA DAY talks to a Lancashire farmer about the terrible time.

When cows became unsteady on their feet, suffered from tremors and displayed loss of appetite and erratic behaviour, these were all signs of the deadly disease Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) which became widely known as Mad Cow Disease.

After the realisation that the disease could be transmitted to humans as new variant Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease (vCJD) by eating contaminated meat, the precautionary slaughter and destruction of cattle was carried out.

Inquiries later concluded the cause of BSE was most likely from cattle, which are usually herbivores, being fed the remains of other cattle in the form of meat and bonemeal and from sheep with scrapie.

It became one of the worst animal epidemics and public health scares in Britain as BSE infected more than 180,000 cattle and another 4.4m were destroyed as a precaution.

It cost the taxpayer millions in consumer safeguards, compensation payments and aid to the beef industry as well as costing the lives of humans killed by vCJD.

For farmers, it was a time of great misery as not only did they see the mass culling of cattle, the public lost confidence in beef and many countries banned the importing of British beef.

Lytham farmer Andrew Pemberton, 58, who owns Birks Farm on Ballam Road, Lytham with wife Ailsa, says BSE was caused by the practice of recycling animal remains in food rations for livestock – which he claims was a”recipe for disaster”.

Andrew, who has lived on the farm all his life and now runs it with his son Thomas who is the herdsman, says: “Feeding meat back to animals was wrong.

“But putting ruminents back into the dairy rations was normal practice back then.

“Blood, offal and bonemeal was put into the ruminents rations as it was a cheap form of protein.

“We did not do this directly at our farm. But the problem was animal food manufacturers were doing it because it was cost-effective.”

During the BSE crisis, the mass culling of cattle was carried out and any cows found to be related to animals suspected to have BSE were traced and killed.

Andrew, a father of three, explains: “We had no confirmed cases of CJD at our farm. However, at one stage about 20 years ago, we had some suspected cases.

“At the time of the BSE crisis, we had three farms and had beef cattle.

“We had about 400 cattle, mainly dairy, but we also had about 80 beef cattle.

“We only had one animal that the vet thought was possibly BSE suspect.

“This was taken away and slaughtered but was not confirmed as having BSE.

“However, as part of the sweeping up process by the Government, they traced the resulting offspring of any suspected animals and any blood line connections were taken away from farmers at a compensatory price.

“These young were then culled.

“We had about 12 from one suspected cattle – daughters and daughters of daughters and direct sisters.

“The compensation you were given was non-negotiable and they made assumptions about what the cow was worth.

“We did not find this satisfactory at the time.

“If it was a poor animal, you might have felt the compensation was OK.

“But if it was a good animal, the standard compensation did not reflect what the animal was worth to you.

“We didn’t have poor animals on the farm and we felt our animals were worth more. I am sure many farmers felt the same.”

Andrew says this led to other problems as it meant buying in other animals. However, his farm had run a closed herd and bred their own animals and not bought any in for years.

Andrew explains: “We bred our own cattle as this meant we knew what we had.

“When you buy other people’s animals, you could also be buying other people’s problems.

“Around 98 per cent of our cattle have been home bred and for the last 12 to 15 years, we have raised all our own cows.”

Andrew says Birk Farm is now primarily a dairy farm and they produce milk and sell it on their own doorstep.

However, at the time of BSE, they did not have as much milk so had to source it from elsewhere to bridge the gap.

Andrew remembers: “BSE depressed the market and it was another wave of uncertainty for the agricultural market.

“The beef market collapsed and there was a lot of uncertainty.

“We were trying to sell meat products to Europe but because Europe closed its doors, we had a surplus in our own country.

“However, I never stopped eating beef and neither did my family.”

Andrew says at the time of the culling of cattle, he remembers it feeling like a real waste.

He says: “I felt it was a real shame that these cattle had to be destroyed when BSE was not proved.

“We followed the Government’s policy of blanket slaughtering so any cattle over the age of 30-months could not go into the food chain.

“They may have been perfectly good animals, but the Government paid the farmers compensation for them and then paid for their culling and incineration.

“In my opinion, the culling was needless. It cost the country a lot of money.

“However, a lot of people will say if it even saved one life, it was money well spent.

“It is a very emotional and political argument.

“But on the other hand, people are killed on the roads every day and killed going out to war.”

Andrew says the effects of BSE led to many farmers diversifying and some completely changed what they were farming just to make a living.

He says: “Everyone had to make a change in some way.

“Some farms had to diversify because they could not make money from meat and some became tourist attractions and animal farms.

“There was definitely a problem there with CJD. But I am convinced that the scientists and scaremongerers did as much damage as BSE itself – if not more – for the farming industry.

“It took a long time to get that confidence back.”

Andrew says farmers come under a lot of pressure from various groups, but ultimately, the nation wants to buy its food cheaper.

He explains: “Farmers have got everyone on their back such as the environmental people and the animal rights people.

“But then the majority of the nation wants food and most will look for cheaper alternatives.

“The amount households spend on food now is proportionately a lot less than people spent in the 1960s and 1970s.

“People spent more than half their budget on food in those days. But now people want to spend their money of holidays, cars and Sky TV.

Food has become a lot cheaper.

“The day when we become properly hungry as a country, there will be a great change in attitudes towards farmers.”

‘I don’t think it was bad beef’

A Lancashire retired farmer who lost his wife to the human form of Mad Cow Disease told The Gazette at the time that he had not stopped eating beef.

John Knowles, who lived at Cottam Lodge Farm, Cottam, near Preston, gave up farming in 1992 when his wife June became ill.

She died at the age of 55 in October 1993 and John spoke to our sister paper, the Evening Post for the first time about her death in 1995.

The couple had been married for 32 years and had three children. June became ill in summer 1992 and went into hospital in November. Weeks later, she was diagnosed as having CJD.

Speaking to the Evening Post in 1995, Mr Knowles said: “Talking about June and her illness is very upsetting, especially for the family, but I think it is only right to say that I feel there are too many unanswered questions and a big IF about the possible connection between the two diseases.

“I have not stopped eating beef and if June were alive today, I am sure she would keep on eating beef.

“There is no evidence that eating beef can lead to CJD.

“I have thought about this all the time since June became ill and died from this terrible disease.

“I think that one day they will determine that the only connection between CJD and Mad Cow Disease is that they have similar behavioural patterns and that is all.

“There are only a very small number of people who get this disease and I think June, like the others, was desperately unlucky and I don’t think it has anything to do with eating beef.

“I don’t think people realise the devastating effect this scaremongering is having on the farming industry.

“It is similar to the panic over eggs and salmonella a few years ago.

“What will be the next thing we will be told is not safe to eat?”

Mr Knowles later said: “It does seem ironic that June died from this disease when she was not a big meat eater - she would rather eat fish. There is no question that CJD is a terrible illness and everything should be done to prevent it.’’