When reporters ask Juanita Wilson, owner of an animal sanctuary in southern Scotland, what she remembers most about last year’s foot-and-mouth epidemic, she doesn’t hesitate a minute to reply.
“The raid on my premises minutes before 6 o’clock in the morning [May 11],” she answers. “There were at least 30 policemen – we’ve never been able to ascertain how many exactly, but there were two mini-buses full and a lot of individual cars, plus the slaughter team. They had come to kill my animals and were blocking the roads to keep the media and protesters from getting to me. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Wilson, 54, founded the Mossburn Animal Centre 14 years ago at Hightae, a small rural community four miles southwest of Lockerbie. Here, animals that have been abused, abandoned or injured find loving care and a safe home. As a non-profit charity, the center provides educational opportunities for children and adults with various emotional and learning problems who find working with animals therapeutic.
Among the guinea pigs, geese, ferrets, polecats, ponies, pigs, dogs and cats are three sheep and 14 goats. When foot-and-mouth hit the area in early March 2001, Wilson was worried about them. Cattle, sheep, goats and even alpacas on farms around Mossburn were being “culled out” by slaughter teams, and white trucks – dubbed “cull wagons” – trundled their way through the countryside carrying the bodies of tens of thousands of animals to mass burial pits and funeral pyres.
But her veterinarian checked her sheep and goats daily and gave them a clean bill of health.
“Not only did he check them every day, he drew blood for testing. But MAFF [Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, the then-responsible agency] refused to accept his samples for testing or to do any testing of their own,” she told WorldNetDaily.
In early May, Wilson was notified by MAFF that her sheep and goats were to be slaughtered. It seemed strange timing considering that the neighboring farm had been culled out four and a half weeks before, and the incubation period for the virus, had it reached her animals, was long past.
But she has no doubts as to what precipitated MAFF’s sudden interest in Mossburn.
Though never a “political animal,” as she puts it – a spot of campaigning for a candidate for the local council was the extent of her interests in that area – “it’s just that this kind of thing makes you political.”
When the mass slaughtering started, Wilson was galvanized into action, helping stage rallies in front of MAFF headquarters in Dumfries. One of these was held April 29. The following evening she and political activist and publicist Alistair McConnachie co-hosted a public meeting in Lockerbie that featured a panel of well-informed anti-cull, pro-vaccination speakers, including a notable scientist. Over 200 people attended.
The speakers told the audience in no uncertain terms that the government’s policy of “contiguous culling” – under which animals on farms and properties within a 3-kilometer [1.86 miles] radius of an “infected premise” were killed whether diseased or not (most were not) – was not only unnecessary and ineffective for controlling the spread of the disease, but unlawful. They said that neither the UK Animal Health Act nor the regulations of the European Union required or permitted such a policy. Most important, they explained that there was an alternative to culling; a vaccine existed which was used in much of the world to control foot-and-mouth, but the UK government adamantly refused to allow its use.
Wilson told the audience that anti-cull protests were being held every weekend in front of the MAFF offices and urged folks to attend the next one scheduled for Sunday, May 6.
Two days after the meeting in Lockerbie, she received a late-night phone call from a government agent informing her that her sheep and goats were to be culled.
‘It’s illegal, it’s disgraceful!’
In her words, “[An official] rang me and said, ‘Are you aware we have a pre-emptive cull?’ I said, ‘Excuse me, not only am I aware of it, I am against it! It’s illegal, it’s disgraceful, and you’re not killing my animals.’ I was fuming. Plus they rang me late at night, which I thought was bang out of order as well.”
Wilson immediately filed an appeal for judicial review because “if you’ve got a judicial review pending then they can’t come and get you, so you have a few days,” she said.
She and her daughter Philippa alerted the media and began rallying anti-cull activists and neighbors. Supporters from around the UK traveled to Mossburn; some camped on the premises at night. Kirstin McBride and her mother Elizabeth Walls, who live only a few miles away, came every day to show their support. As reported by WorldNetDaily, their pet goat Misty had been surreptitiously slaughtered by a MAFF vet in early April, and the two women were now serious anti-cull activists.
With people around at all times and the media keeping fairly close tabs, whatever MAFF did wasn’t going to be done in secret or in the dark.
But despite Wilson’s legal efforts, on May 10, a judge gave the green light to MAFF to kill the sheep and goats, though not the pigs or cattle, which are more vulnerable to the effects of foot-and-mouth.
Says Wilson, “They simply wanted to get rid of sheep and goats; it was very clear.”
Nonetheless, reluctantly, she agreed to have them slaughtered the next day but made an arrangement with MAFF that they would be put down by her vet with a government vet watching.
“MAFF vets weren’t killing clean, and I didn’t trust them to do it right. I wanted it done competently and with an anesthetic given first,” Wilson explained. She said it took one vet seven injections to kill a goat owned by a friend, and “the goat was bleating like anything.”
“I wanted my own vet to put them down with their MAFF vet in attendance, and they had agreed,” she declared. “This was to happen at 10 o’clock Friday morning, but they turned up minutes before 6 with at least 30 policemen to begin the killing then and there.”
The ploy by MAFF – that would allow officials to carry out their task with minimal scrutiny and no media coverage – was almost successful. Many of the protesters who had been staying at Mossburn left upon hearing that slaughter was eminent and figuring there was nothing they could do. Television crews and other media weren’t expected for a couple of hours.
But a few supporters remained and were joined by others, including Alistair McConnachie from Glasgow, publisher of Sovereignty, “a journal for national independence” and an online webzine of the same name. The site has a special link for information and articles about foot-and-mouth, including news about the situation at Mossburn. In addition to the campers and guests, a few early morning risers – Kirstin McBride was one – arrived minutes ahead of the posse.
MAFF no doubt figured it held the upper hand, but late the preceding evening Wilson had been dealt a winning card to toss on the table. “Out of the blue,” James Strang, a man she did not know but who had seen her on television, telephoned with some savvy legal advice, and by midnight she was being driven to Glasgow, 60 miles north of Lockerbie, to swear out an affidavit before a notary public that might stop the slaughter and allow the case to be reopened.
Police arrive at Mossburn Animal Centre. From Sovereignty. With permission.
When MAFF with its entourage of police arrived, Wilson presented them with her signed affidavit. A flurry of phone calls followed as MAFF officials frantically called headquarters for instructions – and apparently were told to back off. At 8 a.m. the police and MAFF agents jumped in their cars and vans and cleared out.
“They were gone!” McConnachie exclaims in the blow-by-blow account of the standoff he wrote for Sovereignty. “MAFF had backed down in the face of the affidavit. The police, MAFF and the slaughter squad who had arrived at the incredible time of 5:45 a.m., ready to kill the animals, had gone. We had held them off!”
Paying tribute to “the wonders of modern technology,” McConnachie describes how the news was sent from Mossburn to the world.
“I immediately borrowed Kirstin’s (McBride) mobile phone and called Jane Barribal of FarmTalking.com, an Internet activist. … I told her the latest amazing happenings, she copied it down and by 9 a.m. had circulated the entire story via e-mail to hundreds of people and press desks. By midday, the story had been read by thousands of people.”
For Wilson, the hours following the police departure were “manic.”
Juanita Wilson celebrates her victory. From Sovereignty. With permission.
“Whilst I’m dealing with the press and all the brouhaha, my daughter’s on the phone putting a new legal team in place. It was crazy,” she says. And it was a team effort. “People tell me, ‘You did well,’ but it wasn’t me – it was whole loads of people who contributed to the effort.”
It was also a race against the clock, as she had a 2 p.m. court appointment in Edinburgh.
At noon, with TV vans following in her wake, she was on her way to petition the High Court for a new hearing. This was granted and a court date set for the following Tuesday. An appeal lodged by MAFF against this second hearing was summarily dismissed by the judge.
That weekend and Monday, Wilson and her supporters spent hours putting together evidence for the case. It was no longer simply an isolated action involving a woman trying to save her animals – the policy of the contiguous cull itself was being put on trial.
Monday evening, with just hours to go until the hearing, Ross Finnie, the Scottish Executive’s minister for rural affairs, issued a statement declaring that he was ordering an end to the automatic slaughter of animals within three kilometers of an infected premise. Moreover, in future cases, people affected would be granted a hearing.
“We worked over this all day Saturday, Sunday and Monday, and on Monday night the Scottish Executive changed their policy,” Wilson said. “But they only changed it because they knew we were going to win. They couldn’t have withstood the evidence. They knew we had experts [on foot-and-mouth] here from Holland; we had epidemiologists, biologists – the whole shooting match. Everybody jumped for it because they knew it was a big one to go for.”
James Strang, Wilson’s mysterious adviser who phoned her that Thursday evening and prepared the affidavit, discussed the strategy with WorldNetDaily. Strang is studying to be a solicitor and works at a law firm. His special area of expertise is human-rights law.
“Basically, the affidavit put both MAFF and the chief constable of Dumfries on notice that the killing of the animals would be unlawful,” he explained. “As far as the chief constable was concerned, we were putting him on notice that if he assisted MAFF he would be assisting in an unlawful act. He could also be liable for conspiracy, because conspiracy is simply an agreement between two or more persons to carry out an unlawful act.”
Strang contends that under the recently passed Human Rights Act it is unlawful for a public authority to act or to fail to act in any way that’s incompatible with any of the rights governed by the European Convention on Human Rights. And the Scotland Act (also a recent statute) says a member of the Scottish Executive has no power to do or fail to do any act that is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
The proposed cull would have violated certain rights under the European Convention on Human Rights – specifically, under Article 8, a person has a right to respect for private and family life, while Article 6, paragraph 1, says a person is entitled to a fair hearing before an independent impartial tribunal in the determination of both civil rights and obligations. A citizen threatened with an infringement of private life or the destruction of possessions by the government has a right to a hearing in open court where the “lawfulness and proportionality” of the government’s intentions can be ruled on after all relevant evidence is heard and before those intentions are carried out
“So one of the arguments in Juanita’s case was that she was being denied her right to a hearing,” Strang explained. “There was no real hearing. What MAFF had in place was a blanket policy, and a blanket policy cannot satisfy the right to a hearing before an independent, impartial tribunal because it can’t take into account the particular facts and circumstances of the individual case.”
He said the affidavit was served on the various parties, but Juanita had a copy, so when MAFF turned up at her premises “she stuck it under their noses, putting them on alert that what they were doing was unlawful.”
That was part one of a two-part offensive.
At 6 a.m., while Wilson was facing down MAFF officials with her affidavit, Strang was on the phone rousting a clerk of the High Court in Edinburgh from his bed to file an interim interdict – a temporary injunction to stop the action.
“This meant that the case was again a live case before the courts, and that until such a time as a determination had been made by the court it would be unlawful to carry out the culling of the animals,” said Strang.
The police and MAFF had withdrawn, but not only because Wilson waved an affidavit and said what they were doing was somehow unlawful. It required the extra kick of there being a new hearing in the offing.
As Strang sees it, “The major factor in their withdrawing was the fact that the case was now subject to new court proceedings. This meant it would be unlawful for them to carry out any act whilst the court proceedings remained to be determined.”
Then came the last-minute capitulation Monday evening, and it appeared MAFF had thrown in the towel. But in evaluating the action, Strang feels it was not a complete victory, as there is nothing to prevent the government at any time from reversing its present policy.
“The night before they were due to go back to court, the Scottish Executive released a statement saying they were changing their policy on culling and replacing it with a policy of giving people a hearing,” he said, “but they did that of their own volition, not by order of the courts, which means they can withdraw from that policy of their own volition at any time because so far there has not been a decision of the courts.”
Strang said that any change of policy would have to be announced and that it would be well for those likely to be affected – farmers, pet owners and owners of animal refuges like Wilson – to develop an action plan in case that happens.
Wilson agrees with his evaluation. “I was pleased at the time, but retrospectively I’m not at all pleased, because I would have liked to have gone to trial,” she said.
Without such a trial, such issues as the legality and alleged necessity for the contiguous cull remain unresolved.
Considering that Food and Farming Minister Lord Whitty and Animal Health Minister Elliot Morley, MP for Scunthorpe, North Yorkshire, have stated repeatedly that they would not hesitate to invoke emergency powers to reinstate the contiguous cull policy if foot-and-mouth breaks out again, it remains a matter of continuing concern for anyone who owns animals.
That’s the reason Wilson encouraged Kirstin McBride – heartened by the judge’s statement at the young woman’s trial that the government seemed to have acted illegally – to pursue a civil action against those responsible for killing Misty, the goat.
Though the costs for McBride and her family would have been prohibitive, being part of a newly filed group lawsuit makes it possible. Wilson has started a dedicated fund for her legal expenses. She may be contacted through the Mossburn.org website.
“[Court] actions like this must be pursued,” she said. “Our government has sold the people of this country, the rural people of this country, down the river. We’ve got to show them up for what they are.”
Since the standoff, a number of policemen have apologized to her for the part they were required to play that morning. “They’ve told me they were annoyed, or ashamed, at what they had to do – that they were taken away from their lawful, usual business to come out and block all surrounding roads leading to Mossburn so that three sheep and 14 goats could be killed,” she said.