Responding to the government's exhortations not to flee abroad for Easter, but to treat the British countryside as if it were still "open for business" (whatever that may mean), I spent the Easter holiday in Northamptonshire in a house near a field teeming with sheep and newborn lambs. These particular lambs may be permitted to live long enough to provide some families their Sunday roasts. For until Easter, at any rate, there had been only one case of foot-and-mouth in the county, and it is far enough away to stop them having to be massacred.
Another ghastly fate that they have been spared was illustrated on Good Friday on the front pages of the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. Both papers carried the same photograph of a newborn lamb floundering in a quagmire of mud on a Norfolk farm. It would be dead by Easter, they predicted, because its owner was prevented by foot-and-mouth restrictions from moving it to a safe place. Thousands of lambs throughout the country were facing the same slow death, the Daily Mail said.
The paper had done some historical and literary research to underline the poignancy of this situation. "The lamb is an eternal symbol of rebirth, hope, optimism and a new beginning," its reporter explained. "It features in nursery rhymes and holy writings, and the image of the gambolling lamb is deeply embedded in our national consciousness. That such scenes as this are occurring all over Britain on Good Friday is a terrible irony."
Another "terrible irony" is how little Britain's animal-rights activists seem to care about the mass slaughter of livestock, although they routinely resort to acts of violence in their defence of the right of foxes not to be hunted and of rats not to be used for medical research. Last weekend, there were almost two million farm animals on death row, waiting for their sentences to be carried out, but hardly an animal-rights demonstrator in sight.
Last week's New Statesman carried an article about the "eerie silence" of Britain's pro-animal movement in the face of this animal holocaust.
For once, it pointed out, "the consciousness of the masses seems higher than that of the supposed revolutionary vanguard". But why? The explanations garnered by the New Statesman included a claim that the activists are in cahoots with the government over the hunting bill, and don't want to rock the boat at the moment by protesting against the government's "cull". It was also suggested that "fighting Maff's death squads lacked the class-war appeal of the struggles against toff fox-hunters or capitalist drug companies".
That could well be true; but Animal Aid, Britain's largest animal-rights group, maintains that the real reason for its silence is that the cull involves no more cruelty to farm animals than they get from "greedy" farmers in normal times. In fact, in Animal Aid's view, the cull is almost a merciful release from the ordinary rigours of factory farming and the "terrible things" that go on routinely in abattoirs.
"Four million newborn lambs and one million adult sheep succumb each year to the harsh treatment they endure at the hands of farmers," Animal Aid said in a recent press release. "The farmers' response, oft repeated in industry journals, is to shift the blame on to their victims. 'Sheep have a will to die,' they will say."
Animal Aid's only response to the crisis has been to promote vegetarianism, which may be a good idea in itself but is hardly an emotional reaction to dramatic events. Many members of the public have been so troubled by the cull that they have had to stop watching the news on television, but the activists seem quite relaxed about it.
It is not even as if the cull were being conducted with great humanity. The animals can see each other being slaughtered, a distressing experience that they are spared in abattoirs. And according to the New Statesman, there is plenty of evidence that some animals are being tipped into the burial pits while still alive.
My suspicion about the activists is that they believe less in the capacity of animals to feel emotion than most ordinary people do. Whatever else they are, they are not sentimentalists. I go along with the sentimentalists. I think animals do have feelings. For example, the latest genetic research shows that every fruit fly has as many individual characteristics as every human being, and that fruit flies possess all the necessary preconditions for being depressed and getting Alzheimer's disease, though, admittedly, it is not yet proven that they have done either. (The Guardian, 21. April 2001)