Wednesday, 26 May 2010


As I try to work, I am watching professionals shear alpacas. This is the downside of having a desk that looks out over miles of Devon countryside; the opportunities for distraction are frequent. It's impressive to see how efficiently the local shearer and his Italian assistant just heave the animals onto their sides and set to work. One trims their toenails while the other is shearing; then they pop them back on their feet, give them an encouraging slap on the rump, and move to the next one. Some alpacas are fine with this, but some make a noise like they're being eviscerated. The shearers just get on with it either way: these aren't pets, and they don't want reassurance from you, they just want you to get it over with and leave them alone. This is how you tell professional animal workers, even if it can be mistaken for a lack of compassion. When I have anything to do with a worried alpaca I tend to say something like "hey, small, don't worry, everything's fine", and rub their neck a bit. It's an automatic response, but I know that really it's me that feels better for it. We lay a pretty heavy burden on animals as reflections of ourselves, sometimes. Look at all those wildlife rescue programs on TV; I hate it when they take some injured wild bird into a centre full of other animals and people and bright lights, and handle it frequently, and keep it "under observation" until they're sure it's OK. Wild animals, even predators but much more so prey, are very uncomfortable about being observed. It's not the bird who is gaining so much from the attempts to save it, but the people who like to think of themselves as the sort who doesn't give up on any creature. If we're so keen to avoid animal suffering then often the best thing we can probably do for them is give them a quick death. But we don't like to think of ourselves as the angel of death.

When it comes to self-image, I don't like to think of myself as sentimental, even if I am fond of cuteoverload. I've made the decision to have animals put to sleep when necessary; I eat animals even though I know what that involves. But living in the countryside is still occasionally oppressive for me. Essentially there is no way of living in this world which doesn't involve you in a huge network of damage. (Rowan Williams is very interesting on this, and on his related dislike of crucifixes showing a suffering rather than a dead Christ, in his book Resurrection.) Just by drawing breath I cause damage every day to other people and to the natural world. My brother decided that it is impossible to interact with animals without causing damage, and he is therefore a vegetarian with no pets. (I note that the same logic hasn't stopped him having children though.) I love my brother and respect his decision, which has drawn down onto his head a lot of flack from various people, so I don't point out the fates of male calves and male chicks implied by the production of milk and eggs. Vegans aren't off the hook either, not by a long chalk: some arable farmers have a saying that if you want to 'cure' a vegetarian, take them ploughing. Both ploughing and harvesting cause huge amounts of small animal deaths by mangling, as well as destroying homes and food in a way which causes slower, less immediate carnage.

I knew all this before I moved here -- I think most people do, really, they just prefer not to think about it. The thing that gets me down now is the TB problem. You don't want TB in the milk supply (although I think there's limited evidence that it causes harm), so any animal that has it is put to sleep. The problem is that in parts of south-west England, Wales, and Ireland it's near endemic. It's pretty likely that it's spread by badgers. Now I quite like badgers, though it drives me mad when people think they're in any way gentle or furrily endearing -- badgers are nasty vicious little things. I've only ever been looked at by a badger when I was in a car, and I have to say that every time I have been glad of it, because they tend to have an air to them like if you hang around they will take you on, metal frame or not. I don't think animal protection should depend on how cute the animal in question is, and I'm all for the badger being about the most heavily-protected species in the English countryside. So I'd really prefer it if there weren't a cull. Nonetheless, something serious must be done about TB. It's like the foot and mouth crisis but slow-burning, and with more possibility of harm to humans. The organic farm next to us sold six breeding heifers -- a substantial and important sale for them -- four of which tested positive for TB and had to be destroyed. So the whole sale was lost, lots more animals were pointlessly destroyed, and the farm was locked down -- a disaster for which even generous financial compensation could not compensate, and the amounts paid are far from generous. Because they were so near us, and we certainly share families of badgers, our alpacas had to be tested too. Luckily they all came up negative. If any had been positive then they would all have been immediately slaughtered, and a flat rate of 750 pounds paid per carcase -- quite good for a wether, which would usually be sold live for about 500-600 pounds, but woefully inadequate for the bulk of our herd which are breeding females and start at about two grand, and ludicrously insufficient for a stud male, for which you'd pay at least ten grand. Nonetheless, if it had happened it would not have been the financial loss which would have got to my parents. They have bred these animals, carefully choosing bloodlines, delivering the babies and halter-training them at weaning, for ten years now. They would have been utterly devastated. And it's not so much different for people who breed for meat, either. It really annoyed me when the foot and mouth crisis was on that people would say that it shouldn't make much difference as long as farmers were paid a market price for their animals -- such a stupid townie thing to say.

It's not easy to see what's the best thing to do; and the government gives the strong impression that it's doing its best to stop anyone finding out. If you pick up a dead badger by the road (there are some parts of our lifestyle to which we sacrifice multiple badgers without a second thought) it is illegal to test it for TB. No one is quite sure how infected the badgers are. It is illegal to vaccinate your own cows or alpacas, etc, let alone trying to vaccinate the badgers. (It's illegal to fill in a hole left by a badger, even if long out of use, which is frankly just unworkable -- one dug a hole in the middle of our drive and just left it there -- they're certainly not stupid enough to try to live in the middle of our drive.) If a cull is on the cards, that seems like a shame to me; but to pretend that we can produce food for humans without sometimes causing wholesale animal death around us is revoltingly hypocritical, and to care more about animal than human suffering is just fatuous. What everyone round here wants is for their animals to have a happy life and a quick death, and they want that death to be for a purpose; they want a population of undiseased badgers; and they want to earn money from their farming not from compensation paid by people who have just destroyed their farming.

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