None so blind as those that will not see

11th May 2001 at 01:00
Most teachers could think of something they would like to see enshrined in legislation before the abolition of fox-hunting. How this came to be a top legislative priority north of the border was always a bit of a mystery.

Not too many foxes are at risk here anyway, and if the argument is animal cruelty, let's take another look at the safeguards or lack of them for the animals bred to feed us on that final often too lengthy journey to the abattoir. Our politicians have laid themselves wide open to suspicion of political correctness and self-indulgence.

Meantime, of course, the pros and cons of chasing the little red fox - the arguments of the extremists and the search for compromise - have faded from view in the glare of general election hype and in the face of a national plague of truly Pharaonic proportions - foot-and-mouth disease.

What a saga of bumbling indecision, lack of official forward planning and just plain incompetence has characterised these sorry weeks. And how these heart-rending events have underlined yet again the con-trasting perspectives of the Islington mafia in Downing Street or the cabals of intrigue on the Mound and the cohorts of Clarissa's country lovers, whether of the labradorLandrover variety or the croftertenant farmer.

Back in February we townies didn't know how easy we had it with just a bit of slush underfoot, while acquaintances in the country were without electricity for days. Schools were closed, frontier spirit was called for. Only last week friends from the Solway coast came to visit Edinburgh with coughs and sore throats from the toxic chemicals on the burning pyres directly behind their village, and the fumes from Cumbria across the estuary.

To late into a crisis which has already cost the country pound;20 billion, the Government has discovered that the mass burning of livestock releases cancerous dioxins into the atmosphere. The relevant minister wriggles and backtracks daily on the subject of disposal policy, or the latest U-turn on vaccination.

The farmers, say the Government, don't want vaccination. But any farmer will tell you that if ministers would guarantee the market price of the produce of vaccinated beasts they would vaccinate with alacrity. But the Government won't.

This weekend I drove to Lochaber to visit a crofter friend. He has 50 cows and 150 sheep and like many other small sheep farmers would fain get rid of his sheep altogether. Too much work for too little profit. So why doesn't he? Because the European grant scheme is so crazily generous that no way can he afford to give up the sheep subsidy from Brussels. It is, of course, not transferable as cow subsidy. Like so many in the country he is into tourism, but has had not one single visitor to his six A-frame chalets overlooking the loch this year.

The foot-and-mouth precautions on the Highland roads are a farce: we occasionally drove over the tattered remnants of last week's disinfected straw. Walking everywhere is limited or curtailed. Tourists have effectively been frightened off, but the virus is free to travel on the wind, or on birds or deer. Everywhere in the Highlands, sheep and lambs are free to roam the hillsides and cross roads at will, as they always have done, while elsewhere in Britain they starve in mud.

Come to think of it, education may no longer top the agenda and Countryside Alliance candidates do quite well at the polls next month.

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