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Tuesday, 23 September 2014

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Chernobyl still blights Lakes farmers

FARMERS are still paying the price of the Chernobyl disaster – 24 years after the radiation rained down on the Lake District fells.

0520200
Sheep farmer David Ellwood of Baskill farm, Ulpha, is still affected by the Chernobyl disaster 24 years on. JOE RILEY REF: 0520200

Restrictions remain in place which stop farmers whose land is still affected by the radiation from freely selling their animals or products.

Each animal has to be individually checked and cleared by the government before it can be sold.

One of the nine farms in England still being monitored is Baskill Farm, Ulpha.

David Ellwood became the tenant on the farm in the 1980s and his sheep still graze on the contaminated fields.

Mr Ellwood, 53, told how he has been forced to live with the effects.

He said: “It’s been going on so long, we’ve just had to live with it.

“At the start they thought it would last two or three weeks but 24 years on we still don’t know when we can farm normally again.

“It’s something that I don’t think even [the government] know, it could even be another 24 years.”

The sheep eat the contaminated grass and develop a higher than normal level of radiation, which has caused the farms affected to have their meat sales restricted.

Days before taking his sheep to market, Mr Ellwood has to have them scanned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to ensure they are safe to eat.

He said: “To make sure that the readings are low and each animal passes the test, I bring the sheep down on to the lower slopes, where contamination in the grass seems to be less so the levels of radiation in the sheep can decrease over a week.”

Terry Donohue, head of contaminants strategy and policy for the Food Standards Agency, said: “The restrictions will be in place for as long as necessary.

“We do sympathise with farmers but the Food Standards Agency’s primary concern is to minimise the risk to the public from unacceptable levels of radioactivity getting into the food supply.

“The controls restrict the movement and sale of sheep in the areas still affected by the radioactivity from the Chernobyl nuclear accident and are ensuring food safety.

“As the levels of radioactivity decrease with time, we remove restrictions where it can be shown that they are no longer necessary.

“Although far fewer farms are under these restrictions today than in 1986, it is likely that restrictions in some areas will need to remain in place for several more years”.

Westmorland and Lonsdale MP Tim Farron said: “When dealing with the long-term effects of a disaster like Chernobyl, it’s vital that the proper safety precautions are taken.

“But given that the crisis happened over 24 years ago, surely enough time has passed for the Food Standards Agency to review the current system and look again at the impact this is having on Britain’s uplands.”

Mr Ellwood said if one of his sheep fails the government inspection, he can keep a sheep for longer until the contamination clears. But sometimes the ministry take the sheep away to do tests. In these cases the farmers are given compensation of £1.30 per animal – the same amount they were given in 1986.

Mr Farron added: “Hill farmers in my constituency of Westmorland and Lonsdale earn on average less than £6,000 a year.

“They don’t need another needlessly bureaucratic obstacle that will leave many of them further out of pocket.

“If the FSA maintain that these tests are needed, they should immediately increase the level of compensation to ensure there isn’t a continued exodus from the hill farming industry.”

DEFRA has defended the compensation standstill.

A spokesman said: “The Chernobyl nuclear disaster affected sheep flocks in Cumbria, parts of Wales and Scotland and it’s essential that any change to compensation is coordinated across Great Britain.

“A majority of sheep in areas still affected by radioactivity are in Wales and we are working with the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish government on whether the current level of compensation is suitable.”

Mr Ellwood said he was grateful his meat sales haven’t dropped since the disaster – unlike milk sales in Carlisle after the Windscale fire in 1957 when cows’ milk became contaminated through the animals eating the grass.

He said: “There hasn’t been a great loss of meat trade because of the disaster.

“I am careful to make sure all the sheep pass their tests.”

There are currently 369 farms, or part farms, and about 190,000 sheep within the restricted areas of England, Scotland and Wales.

This represents a reduction of over 95 per cent since 1986, when about 9,700 farms and 4,225,000 sheep were under restriction across the UK.

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