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Sunday, February 26, 2017
Foot and Mouth disease - report from a rural parish
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¬†I sometimes find it helpful to reflect on the Mysteries of the Rosary in the light of current events. Pre-Lent indulgence took me to the Joyful Mysteries. As the news of Foot and Mouth disease worsened, there seemed to be little room for joy. It was clear that Mary would not have been able to visit her cousin in the hill country if this was happening then. As to the Nativity, there would have been straw and disinfectant before the stable door. Had entry been permitted, who would have come? The census would have been cancelled. The shepherds would have stayed with their sheep. Were the wise men turned back at the border, their sandwiches confiscated? The news is not very encouraging as the current plague sweeps the land. How is it affecting the local church? On Exmoor, last Sunday's Mass attendance was down, but mostly because of the weather (cold, wet and icy roads - no joke if you're driving 15 miles to Mass) or the onset of lambing. This Sunday it will be lower because of movement restrictions imposed by Foot and Mouth disease. One of our regulars rang to say a neighbouring farmer had been served a D form. The farmer's son had driven a lorry to an abattoir now confirmed as a source of foot and mouth and all his contacts were under observation. Exmoor is virtually shut down. Footpaths are closed. Youth groups booking the diocesan residential centre in Dulverton are postponing until it becomes possible to hike again on the moor. The monthly round of far-flung housebound communicants has had to be reduced to what is either safe for the farm or essential for the individual. What is the impact on the farmer? The economics of sheep farming have been dire for some time. Last year it was possible for the sale price of sheep not to cover the cost of their transport to auction. Similarly, to have a sheep sheared might cost 70 or more pence, the sheared wool making 40 pence - with luck. Things were just beginning to improve before the present plague struck. This year there seemed to be less talk of whether farmers could afford to keep triplets in view of the cost of weaning the third lamb, nor were those who also had beef cattle getting prices quite at rock bottom. Many local farms are small, perhaps with a few hundred sheep. As in the Health Service, where so much slack has been taken out of the system that it almost collapsed when last winter's flu struck, so there seems nothing left into which it is possible for the small farmer to diversify. A typical farm survives because the husband has part-time or occasional work elsewhere, while the wife does bed and breakfast. The profit of the latter (£17 a night per person) always uncertain, is small enough when the full English breakfast, home-baked bread, farm-fresh milk, washing, heating, lighting and so forth are subtracted, certainly well below the minimum wage. Now that little ready cash has stopped. The sheep that were going to market to make space for the lambing of the next three weeks are stuck where they are. All movements have been stopped. Nothing is coming into the bank from sheep sales. Even the cheering sight of Spring lambs will have lost its edge. Lambing is an exhausting job, 24 hours a day, at which our husband and wife relieve each other while hoping not to have to call the vet and attract more bills - and tired people have few reserves with which to face depression. Lucky farmers can sometimes manage a night away from the farm at some point in the year. It is impossible to imagine on this farm any inward money. Farm-bound animals must be fed. There is little grass at this time of year. Feed bills must be paid. Listeners to The Archers know only too well, the Grundys failed to pay their bills and had to leave Grange Farm. Humans can manage on less, eating what they grow, buying in little beyond flour. Solar panels and wood-burning stoves reduce electricity bills to what is essential. The Community Charge marches on relentlessly. In spite of no street lights or rubbish collection, this must be paid in full. Prison is the alternative. And this charge is £1,000 a year, £20 a week. It is a wonder that any remain in the industry. The thousands of workers farming loses annually are so thinly spread they do not attract the public attention of, say, a closing steel mill shedding far fewer people. And if you want to leave the farm, who will buy it from you? Where is the Church is all this? Exmoor is not a particularly Catholic area. In Catholic terms it is not badly supplied with clergy. Perhaps the division between two dioceses has made rationalisation harder. The rule that it is easier to lose farm jobs because of their lower visibility, seems to apply also to rural ministry. Anglican brethren, also divided between two diocese, are becoming much thinner on the ground, with ever larger groupings of parishes. It is a fact of life in both churches that in a rural diocese, the bishop is far away. The Catholic bishop is 75 miles away from here, the nearest Catholic church 14 miles; the nearest priest (in the next diocese) 15 miles away. As a rural Anglican teacher and trainer, I campaigned for theological colleges to send ordinands on rural placements with little success. It was nothing personal, for as an urban Anglican I was sent a fare share of ordinands on parish placements. Where are the Catholic seminarians? Indeed, where are the seminaries? At my Catholic seminary I told firmly by the director of Pastoral Studies that seminary was not about training or education, but about formation. Here may be a clue why an English seminarian on a deep rural placement is such a rare bird. In the absence of such native birds, our parish invites East European seminarians to improve their English here while shadowing the parish priest. Usually this has to be in their own time as their bishops expect them to do a month's parish placement in their home parish. Seminarians and bishops will insist on seminarians receiving rural as well as urban and suburban placements only when the rural is perceived to be of equal importance. Urban and rural priestly skills differ little. It is the context in which they are exercised which differs greatly. The government is being forced (excuse the cliche) to address rural issues in spite of itself. Perhaps the current troubles will raise rural issues on the Church agenda too. Foot and Mouth disease leaves everyone feeling helpless. It is much easier to cope with if something to do can be found. The best service most Christians can render just now is to support farmers in prayer, which may not feel like much action but will demonstrate powerfully that we are with them in spirit. To pray is to grow in understanding. If Foot and Mouth disease helps us to understand the problems of the farming industry: its isolation, its susceptibility to natural forces, its rapid decline, the mountain of bureaucracy confronting it, the pressure of market forces to which it must respond to survive, then all will have not been in vain. If it points clearly to the real cost of cheap or imported food, the cheap foreign holiday, whatever, pray God we shall see you back on Exmoor this summer, eating well and enjoying the wonderful scenery.
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