Phoenix: cute calf, but what about the foot-and-mouth issue?

How calf, not man, makes policy.

Sandy Starr

Topics Politics

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The UK foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001 will go down in history as the animal disease that postponed a general election. As if that wasn’t surreal enough, it is an animal, not an argument, that seems to have brought about a change in the government’s policy for dealing with the disease.

Since the beginning of the outbreak in February, there has been fierce debate between government departments, farmers and vets over the best method of containing the outbreak: vaccination or slaughter? Environmentalists joined the fray arguing that animal slaughter pyres were causing pollution (1), and the health industry intervened when dioxins produced by the pyres were suspected of posing a cancer risk (2).

But in the end, it was none of these (human) parties who stole the headlines and decided the outcome – it was a white, 12-day-old heifer calf.

Phoenix earned her name when she was found alive beneath a pile of animal carcasses in Devon, huddled next to her dead mother. The plucky calf either survived a lethal injection or was mistakenly spared one, and subsequently escaped starvation by eating straw off the floor. After Phoenix was found, vets from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) declared her uncontaminated by foot-and-mouth, which was hardly surprising, since the herd that her mother had belonged to was culled only as a precaution against future infection (3).

Phoenix’s survival meant that the cull had not been completed. But when MAFF’s vets set about the entirely reasonable task of finishing the job, Phoenix’s owners, Michaela and Philip Board, refused to allow the calf’s death. They ordered the vets off their property and declared that Phoenix was a ‘symbol of hope’ for the UK’s beleaguered farming industry (4).

MAFF was having none of this nonsense, and one of its spokesmen declared that ‘Phoenix has to die. This stand will not alter what we have to do’ (5). Mr and Mrs Board stood fast, however, and were soon receiving support from every quarter. Even the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), who previously advocated an immediate and extensive slaughter policy as the best solution to the foot-and-mouth outbreak, were on Phoenix’s side. ‘Killing Phoenix would make Herod look like a humanitarian’ declared NFU regional director Anthony Gibson (6).

Within 48 hours, Downing Street announced that Phoenix had been granted a reprieve from the national slaughter policy, and the cuddly calf graced the front page of almost every UK newspaper, not to mention the homepage of many a UK news website. Now the government is expected to announce a broader relaxation of its slaughter policy (7).

MAFF can still be found grumbling quietly in the background about ‘hideous sentimentality’ (8), which is hardly surprising when you consider that their three months of hard work tackling foot-and-mouth by slaughtering thousands of animals has been overshadowed by the nation’s sympathy for a single calf. UK farmers had already tried to manipulate this kind of sentiment earlier in the outbreak, with stories of healthy lambs sacrificed to foot-and-mouth policy (9). But none of these mutton martyrs had the singular poignancy of Phoenix.

As somebody who used to work on a farm, feeding milk to orphaned calves, I can see the cute side of the Phoenix phenomenon. But when a 12-day-old animal becomes the focus for a national debate on government policy, obscuring all rational discussion of the disease, its impact and how to tackle it, I cannot help but despair. It’s not as though Phoenix’s salvation will benefit her – she is quite oblivious to her newfound fame, and she was never going to get to enjoy her retirement.

Read on:

Foot-and-mouth disease: what about the Baa vote?, by Jennie Bristow

Foot-and-mouth issue

(1) See Environmental fears of cull burning BBC News Online

(2) See Dioxin: a toxin for our times by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

(3) See Phoenix rises from the ashes), Guardian, 25 April 2001

(4) See Phoenix the calf is spared after a national outcry, Independent, 26 April 2001

(5) See Phoenix, the calf they couldn’t cull, fights on, Daily Telegraph, 25 April 2001

(6) See Phoenix saved by a change of heart, The Times, 26 April 2001

(7) See Slaughter policy to be relaxed, BBC News Online, 26 April 2001

(8) See Phoenix saved by a change of heart, The Times, 26 April 2001

(9) See for example On the farm , Guardian, 25 April 2001

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Topics Politics


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