REPORT ON THE GT. ORTON VISIT BY THE EU F&M INQUIRY COMMITTEE, 19 April 2002. By PETER GREENHILL
I was asked to this meeting to read a prepared paper by a former civil engineer (now a farmer) who was highly critical of the construction of the burial pits. He could not attend as he was busy lambing. To many Cumbrians the former RAF wartime airfield has now become synonymous with the mass burial of thousands of sheep and cattle. For months our television screens were constantly showing the scenes of carcasses being cascaded into the gigantic pits dug for the purpose. Very few people have visited the site mainly because the level of security provided would do credit to the Bank of England.
There are no road signs to the airfield and only after endless back-tracking and asking the way did a group of us find the entrance: marked by the presence of a Police car. Security passes were issued, names and vehicle registrations recorded. The wasted journey over rally-style lanes covered in a material which threw up choking clouds of dust had cost us a good 40 minutes however, the Battle Bus carrying the EU delegation was very late so little was lost.
I was shepherded on to the bus amidst this august but largely friendly group and under the guidance of a Defra official (one of God knows how many on site) we were informed over the coach tannoy that we would have a tour of the burial site. This was not before he introduced an endless stream (first names only) of his colleagues who were also positioned on the coach. Glossy brochures about the site available in four languages other than English were handed out and the tour commenced.
To look at a gigantic pit, now filled with the carcasses of some of Cumbria’s best livestock was a heart-numbing experience. To be told that ‘under that hump there’ lay sheep caused visible distress to at least two MEPs who had either lost stock elsewhere in the UK or whose stock was actually in that pit. We were shown other completed pits and their pipework and extraction systems were described in great detail. We were shown the storage tanks from which the thousands of gallons of leachate are withdrawn for disposal ‘elsewhere in the country’. We were also shown a large pile of timber which we were gleefully told was for experimental pyres. We were also shown the special gas burner used to support the combustion process.
This tour was unreal. It had all the pride and glory of the Nazi party conducting a Heritage Tour around Belsen. I think everyone was stunned into an uncomfortable silence except for the extended chatter of our well-meaning guide. The actual meeting had to take place in a local village hall some distance from the site as no facilities existed there. The village hall had no seating arrangements and was dominated by Defra and Environmental officials eager to show off (using computer-based technology) the wonderful job done at Gt. Orton. The EU delegation was tediously introduced to even more officials who stood around awaiting to have questions thrown at them. Since this was done on largely a one-to-one basis there was no possibility of anyone gaining an overview of the sort of questions being posed.
As is now the accepted practice with all of the EU Inquiry meetings, the time available for any speakers was cut short. There were four ‘expert’ speakers, Trevor Hebdon, Ch. Exec of the H&H Group in Carlisle who spoke of the difficulties of dealing with MAFF/Defra organisation notably about the systems of valuation, David Black a local vet who had strong views about the levels of veterinary involvement both during the disaster and for the future. He expressed the hope that the issue of finding an acceptable ‘one shot for life’ vaccine would not be forgotten as an ideal. A lady speaker represented Allerdale Borough Council and she described the difficulties of the relationship between Defra and themselves and finally I read the brief engineer`s statement about pit construction.
I could not resist however, prefacing my reading of the paper with a personal view. I said that whilst we had been shown the site as a masterpiece of engineering skill which would eventually become a wildlife park, it represented to many the memorial to the most incompetent handling of a major outbreak of a disease anywhere in the world.
Judging by the comments afterwards, I think I jangled a raw nerve or two. I did, however, pose a question. I had learned that chicken guns had been used experimentally on lambs who with the ewes had been brought live to the site for slaughter and burial. These guns were later discarded as ineffective. Bearing in mind the reports from the police that in other culls they had been called out to kill off animals left as dead but remaining alive and the well-publicised fact that Phoenix the calf was left for dead under a pile of cattle carcasses including her own Mother, it is a possibility that some of the lambs on whom the chicken guns were used may (just may) have been buried alive.
It is a lasting sadness that some political groups interfered with the visit of these MEPs to such an extent that most of them descended into a shambles. We learned later that all of the meetings were public yet this had not been made clear. Gt. Orton had no outside visitors at all because people had been told that the site was restricted. Yet the meeting actually took place in a public village hall away from the site to which anyone could have come. Somebody, somewhere, will go to any length to avoid a full Public Inquiry into the handling of the Foot & Mouth disaster in Gt. Britain.
PETER GREENHILL, CUMBRIA. April 2002
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