SIMON MARKS: The poet William Blake called it "England's green and pleasant land," but this year the bucolic sights and sounds of Britain in the springtime have been punctuated by the signs of slaughter and death. For six weeks now, Britain has been gripped by an epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease.
From Cumbria in the North to Essex in the East, from Wales in the West to Gloucestershire in the South, more than 750 individual outbreaks have led the government to order the slaughter of more than a quarter of a million animals. The virus, which travels through the air, cannot harm humans but gives animals open sores on their feet and mouths. It doesn't kill livestock, but has been compared to a heavy cold that leaves cows producing less milk and cattle worthless.
IFOR HUMPHREYS: It must be soul destroying to see your life's work go up in smoke. I hope I don't see that.
SIMON MARKS: Ifor Humphreys lives in fear this springtime. A farmer in mid-Wales since 1983, he has 450 sheep and 30 cows on 200 acres of grassland. This is one of his busiest times; it's lambing season in Wales. But as he helps a new generation into life...
IFOR HUMPHREYS: That's a job well done.
SIMON MARKS: ...He fears that these young lambs may soon be led to a premature slaughter.
IFOR HUMPHREYS: I think it's turning out to be a far more nasty little virus than anybody ever thought. It can travel apparently through the air, on wheels of vehicles, even in your breath. And if it's as bad as that, the precautions that I'm taking, such as putting straw soaked in disinfectant across the entrance to the yard, such as restricting vehicles coming into the yard and restricting my own access from the farm, well, you tend to think that, what more can you do? And I'm afraid it it's going to get here, it will find a way whatever I do.
SIMON MARKS: Across this section of mid-Wales, the virus, which the British government blames on the illegal import of infected meat, is finding its way onto a growing number of farms. There were 14 new cases reported here this week alone. For the men in white, officials from Britain's Ministry of Agriculture and volunteers who are slaughtering and burning the animals, it's almost impossible to keep up.
ERIC PUGH, Engineer: I was notified yesterday about 5:00. The cattle on the infected farm were shot this morning. And we're up there building a pyre now.
SIMON MARKS: Eric Pugh is an engineer by trade. But now he's the man farmers call when they need to build a funeral pyre.
ERIC PUGH: It is desperate. I mean, it's desperate need. But it's amazing where you collect your strength and your courage from when you're doing it. I mean, I'm an engineer. I don't like blood and guts anytime. My one brother is a butcher, the other's a farmer, and they don't mind it. I mean, they're absolutely amazed that I'm here. But we have the logistical know-how and the equipment to do these sort of jobs.
SIMON MARKS: The cull of animals is at least providing some work for those made jobless by the epidemic. The local stockyard at Welshpool has been completely closed down after foot-and-mouth was traced to animals that had passed through these pens. The largest sheep market in Europe, officials say it will remain shuttered for many months to come. The economic consequences of foot-and-mouth have already been disastrous. A complete ban on the movement of livestock means animals can't be sold.
The European Union won't permit imports of British meat until 12 months after the last case is diagnosed. Coming hard on the heels of BSE, mad cow disease, which devastated Britain's beef industry, many farmers now receiving compensations for the loss of animals slaughtered because of foot-and-mouth say they'll take the money and walk away.
NIGEL ELGAR, organic farmer: The average age of a Welsh farmer is about 57 years old. Gives you some idea of the demographics of it. And a lot of those people aren't going to be prepared to start again.
SIMON MARKS: Nigel Elgar is an organic farmer high in the hills overlooking mid-Wales. After the BSE crisis, many European shoppers started turning to organic meat. In two weeks time, one of Britain's largest supermarket chains was due to start selling his lamb. Today, as he disinfects in an attempt to keep foot-and-mouth off his land, he has to contemplate the possibility that he might have to start all over again.
NIGEL ELGAR: I think I've had time to think about this over the last few weeks; I was very depressed about it at one time. I feel now I am young enough to start again, it's not like starting from scratch, restocking. It would create problems for us. We've got... I've been here 15 years, I've been keeping accurate records on breeding for the last 15 years, and we will never be able to replace the stock with organic stock. There just isn't the availability in the UK, and it would put our marketing back by at least two years, if not longer, and cost us a lot of money.
SIMON MARKS: And it isn't only the farmers of Wales who are losing out. The entire region has been hit after the government effectively closed the countryside down when the epidemic was first reported. Footpaths are out of bounds. Tourist attractions like Powys Castle are closed after foot-and-mouth was reported on a nearby farm. Museums are deserted. Even the local steam railway isn't running. Businesses that rely on seasonal tourist trade are facing ruin, like the local souvenir store...
ALICE KERTLAND: It has been terrible. You just sit here all day. I had two people in yesterday, two people from an entire day from 10:00 to 5:00.
SIMON MARKS: …The local hardware store, which has been in Tom Yewdall's family since 1892...
TOM YEWDALL, Hardware Store Owner: The smell and the sight of animals burning is not pleasant, people are not going to come to watch that. Once they smell that it would turn anybody off really.
SIMON MARKS: ...And down on the canals, where the pleasure boats that usually ply the waterways are tied to their moorings.
IAN SMITH, Montgomery Canal Cruises: Absolutely devastating. We've actually had to virtually close down the boating side of the business. We still have the restaurant operating because that's not affected, but we haven't moved a boat in the last month, so the financial consequences are enormous.
SIMON MARKS: In a bid to revive the tourist economy, worth $150 million a week, the British government is urging visitors to return to the countryside.
AD SPOKESPERSON: If you want to visit the countryside, don't be stopped by foot-and-mouth.
SIMON MARKS: That radio advertisement has been underlined by a personal plea by Prime Minister Tony Blair. He's ordered his cabinet ministers to spend Easter vacationing in rural areas.
TONY BLAIR: There are different parts of the country with a different level of problem. Now even in those areas very severely affected, there are still vast numbers of things for people to do.
SIMON MARKS: But many in the countryside say the government's message has been confused, ordering people to stay away five weeks ago -- now telling them it is their patriotic duty to return. And the government is accused of dithering on other issues as well, of canceling sporting events, then allowing them to take place, but leaving it too late to order the army to help counter the crisis, and of failing to act rapidly enough to prevent the spread of infection.
IFOR HUMPHREYS: On some farms the time between diagnosis and slaughter can be two days, and between slaughter and disposal of the carcass can be up to five days. And that's totally unacceptable. And of course, in that meantime, the virus has got the chance to spread. So at the moment I'm afraid it is out of control, and I fear the government has not got adequate control at the moment.
SIMON MARKS: You still don't think they've got it under control?
IFOR HUMPHREYS: No, no, no.
SIMON MARKS: The government is also accused of dithering over the use of vaccination, first ruling it out, then agreeing to consider it, today saying it needs more time before making a final decision. Many farmers oppose vaccination, since it would mask foot-and-mouth, stripping Britain of its "disease-free status" and permanently blocking meat exports to much of the rest of the world.
In this part of Britain and in many other rural communities, there's a growing feeling that this foot-and-mouth epidemic is more than just a devastating economic development. Many people here feel that it underscores a significant shift in the balance of power in Britain, a shift that has seen the traditional influence of the countryside, the landed gentry and the aristocracy decline, a shift that has seen urban concerns raised to the fore. And as proof of their declining importance, people here point to the fact that next week, in the middle of the foot-and-mouth crisis, Tony Blair might change Britain's national conversation by calling a general election.
Under the rules of the British parliamentary system, he doesn't have to call an election for another year, but British prime ministers can choose when elections take place, and with Mr. Blair riding high in the polls, his own Labor Party members of parliament are urging him to hold an election on May 3. The opposition Conservative Party leader, William Hague, hoping to benefit politically from a delay, says Mr. Blair will be putting party before country if he goes ahead with the vote. Today, even Britain's leading clerics backed the conservatives' demand for a delay.
LEMBIT OPIK, Liberal-Democrat Member of Parliament: I'm going to contact the ministry.
SIMON MARKS: Back in mid-Wales, the local member of parliament spends much of his day fielding telephone calls from anxious farmers, and says that with much of this district shut down, there are very real questions about whether a traditional door-to-door campaign could even take place.
LEMBIT OPIK: The big challenge for Tony Blair, who makes the call about whether we have an election on May the third or not, is number one, whether the public in the countryside will be able to vote; number two, whether they'll be involved in the campaigning process itself; and I suppose, number three, what message is sent from the UK if we do close the election prospects down and postpone them. I'm glad I'm not having to make this call. But I would add that in this very rural area of Britain here in Montgomeryshire, the general feeling I think is that they would rather focus on resolving the disease rather than having an election.
MICHAEL BRUNSON, Political Analyst: Tony Blair is a prime minister who likes to be loved by everyone. He likes his "big tent." He likes everyone to think he's a really good bloke.
SIMON MARKS: Michael Brunson is one of Britain's most respected political analysts, until last year political editor for Independent Television News of London. He says the dilemma faced by Mr. Blair illustrates just how much British society has changed.
MICHAEL BRUNSON: Britain is very largely an urbanized country now. The great voting blocks are in the towns and cities, the huge six, seven, eight million votes -whatever it is -- in London for a start. The big regional centers, Manchester, Birmingham up in the North, Glasgow in Scotland, Glasgow and Edinburgh - these are where the votes are. And it's one of the very potent mixes that is behind the decision that Tony Blair is taking as to what he does about the calling of the election, because it is the knowledge that the power in Britain has shifted to the big conurbation.
SIMON MARKS: That fact notwithstanding, on his farm in Wales, Ifor Humphreys says nothing should distract the government from dealing with the immediate crisis.
IFOR HUMPHREYS: Well, I fear we're going to be with it at least until midsummer, and probably for longer. I mean, I would hope - the sooner the better it's finished, obviously, but I can't see an end to it at the moment. You know, I think it's with us for the foreseeable future. If the worst comes to the worst here, I want my animals off the place to be disposed of elsewhere. I would hate it to happen here. I think it would leave deep scars with people. So that wouldn't be something to look forward to, no. It gives a horrendous image. I'm sure those pictures are going around the world. And it doesn't give a good image of British farming and of Britain itself.
SIMON MARKS: Britain's farmers insist the country has just been unlucky to suffer from foot-and- mouth disease so soon after the mad cow crisis. And many of them believe that when and if it's contained, the agricultural and political landscape of rural Britain will never look the same again.