Farmed and Dangerous: Tale of Healthy, Shropshire Sheep Being Killed by the CFIA
From woolly sheep and bucolic farm life to criminal charges and gag orders. I look around some days and wonder how I got here from there.
After a court date in March, I commented to my son on how the average murder trial would rarely amount to ten thousand pages of disclosure, yet the government's sheepnapping case will be well over that number.
"This IS a murder trial," he said. "A mass murder."
He's referring to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) killing my rare, very healthy heritage Shropshire sheep. They've murdered over a hundred Shrops in the last couple of years. Little lambs, rams, pregnant ewes, and their unborn. All were beautiful, and all were meant to live out their beautiful lives.
I can thank my U.K. family for getting me started in heritage sheep. This would surprise Ralph and Jan and their clan, since they are steadfast Londoners, with nary a farm animal in sight. They've never even had a pet rock.
In the mid '90s, I flew over with my then teenage son for a month-long road-trip adventure with my uncle, aunt and cousins to trace our familial roots to my dad's boyhood home in Troon, Scotland. En route we drove up through Shrewsbury and the Yorkshire Dales, in England, where my uncle proved most patient with my recurring requests to stop and let me out. I wanted to take photos every time I spotted the Kerry Hills, Cluns, Swaledales and Lonks. Not only does Great Britain have the largest variety of sheep breeds, they have the coolest names, too.
I had fallen hard for the Shropshire, a heritage breed whose origins date back to the 17th century, but specimens with true breed character were on the endangered list and hard to find back in Canada.
Dr. Tom Hutchinson, past president and director of Rare Breeds Canada, had a few rare Miller-line Shropshire ewes, which I purchased. He told me that Hugh Miller had turned the last of his famous flock over to his friend George Kelsey, another veteran Ontario Shropshire breeder. I visited George and Grace Kelsey and found both tragic and wonderful news. I was too late. All of the remaining Miller ewes had succumbed to local coyotes. "But," George said, "there is one ol' boy still left; he's running with the cows, but you can't get near him. He's kind of wild, and he's probably too old to do much good now anyway." A visit to the barnyard found a single woolly sheep lying contentedly among the ruminating Herefords. He had been clever enough or lucky enough to survive the coyote raids by centering himself in the middle of the cattle.
Miller and his genetic gold went on to become the foundation ram for my Wholearth Shropshire flock.
Beneath the tangled locks that hadn't been shorn in years was a long, sturdy, muscular body, a deep chest and impressive wide loin, shorter legs and neck, and the wool-covered ears of the old heritage-style Shropshires.
Not only did Miller have impressive presence, he turned into quite a loveable friend, as well as producer of exceptional progeny.
Shropshires offer all the characteristics that make so many heritage breeds a good choice to raise. In addition to supporting a breed in need of conservation, the rewards range from high lambing rates to birthing ease, milking ability, rate of gain on grass alone, docility, and easy overall management. Plus, they are gorgeous.
In the past decade I've watched with delight as innumerable heritage breeds have gained in popularity not only on small homesteads, but also with new urban chicken farmers intent on producing both eggs and enjoyment in their own backyards. Heritage breeds are finally starting to be recognized and valued for their important contribution to agriculture's genetic biodiversity.
Shropshire numbers were on the rise again and I'd envisioned they might one day enjoy the same new popularity here in Canada as in England. So many were keenly raising the breed that the U.K.-based Rare Breeds Survival Trust moved Shropshires off their "critical" list and upgraded their status to "success."
Conserving a rare heritage breed always felt like the right thing for me to do. But I made a lamentable decision when I sold a few of my beautiful ewes to someone out west. That one move changed the landscape of Canada's entire Shropshire population.
In January of 2010 I got a call from the CFIA informing me that a ewe I'd sold many years earlier to a farm in Alberta had tested positive for a sheep disease called scrapie. I was in disbelief. I'd had my flock for a decade and never seen any signs of the disease. Surely there was some kind of mistake.
There had only been ten cases in all of Canada the year before, and since then only a handful annually. Some producers call it a "political disease." While scrapie is not a human health risk, the CFIA is determined to control it to ensure that cross-border trading in the sheep industry is not affected. They consistently speak of eradicating it, despite CFIA's own veterinarians confirming that this is an impossible task and the best they can do is monitor it.
To ensure traceability, the CFIA has a system whereby every sheep moved off of any farm must be wearing a pre-registered ear tag identification number. The sheep in question had hers in place as per the regulations when moving ovines off farm, so when the CFIA called, they should have been telling me that sheep's ear tag number, not asking me for it, as they were.
Apparently the alleged scrapie-infected sheep did not have the pink traceability tag that was in her ear when I sold her. The CFIA told me the Alberta owner "didn't have it," yet the Alberta owner told me "It was available, but the person picking up the sample failed to record it." The owner had submitted quite a number of brain tissue samples that he had collected from his dead sheep over several months and had stored in a freezer, so the accurate identification of all those plastic baggies was crucial. Then the owner changed his story and said that he had illegally disposed of the carcass of the ewe in question and the tag was no longer attached to the ear, so he didn't give them the number.
I was very certain of a mix-up and reminded the CFIA that my flock had never shown symptoms. They agreed it was quite possible that it had been infected after it left my farm. The thought struck me that they were going to kill my Shropshires and I was reeling until they assured me not to worry, they would not be harming them.
The symptoms of scrapie are severe. They include weakness, wasting body condition, wool loss and rubbing as a result of intense itching, aggression or apprehension, tremors, sometimes an abnormal gait akin to a bunny hop, and then death, generally between two-and-a-half and five years of age.
The CFIA conducted live rectal biopsy tests (which have an 88 percent accuracy rate in detecting the disease) on my sheep. It didn't matter that, as I predicted, all tests came back negative for scrapie.
Nevertheless, the CFIA issued an order for the destruction of all my Shropshires that had a genotype they considered susceptible to scrapie. In a heartbeat. Just like that. Forty-one sheep and lambs doomed. Only about a dozen would be spared.
Despite protests from around the world, the CFIA wanted to wipe out my heritage sheep, along with decades of traditional bloodlines. I wondered why they refused to repeat the biopsies, since it would have effectively increased the accuracy rate. (The postmortem test performed on obex brain tissue has only a slightly higher rate of accuracy.)
Even American farmer and agricultural activist Joel Salatin got involved. He wrote to the Canadian government, saying that, "CFIA's intent to annihilate the Wholearth flock of Shropshire sheep owned by Montana Jones is deeply troubling. Without credible tests that empirically prove the existence of scrapie, to proceed with the planned extermination is both unscientific and tyrannical."
Dr. Tom Hutchinson wrote: "The Shropshire sheep is one of the most significant heritage breeds in Canada, with a great chance of making a comeback....If we let them become extinct it's all over. Montana Jones has assembled some of the best, most ancient heritage genetics, so these are not just average sheep we're talking about. This is an absolute genuine heritage Shropshire flock, and Canada cannot afford to lose it. To kill them based on suspicion with no proof or reason is absolutely ludicrous."
Despite their initial promise that they wouldn't destroy my flock, the CFIA insisted on killing them to see if they were healthy.
As you can see, there's a much dirtier side to farming than the obvious interactions with soil and manure. I never knew. I had zero interest in politics during those childhood days spent propping up my plastic barnyard animals on perfect green cardboard fields. I never zoomed in close-up to examine the real-life version of grime under fingernails that had done the real work. These days, paper-thin flecks of my dried blood peel off in layers like a second skin. Farming is every angle, every perspective, on every element. You can't hide and you can't pretend, so you'd better be okay with things being real. I've developed that skin as a result, as people do, to survive.
You'll see proud video posted of the new batch of cute piglets, fluffy chirpy chicks, and all the happy stuff. Farmers show such pictures for themselves as much as for anyone else; it helps us to remember that side of working with the fragility of life. Otherwise the images that surface will be of a stillborn lamb found in the snow. It's painful enough to bear that truth themselves let alone share it with non-farmers. Life happens, and death happens.
Somewhere in that span between me as a kid imagining happy farm-life scenes and now, I learned about the complicated darkness that an entire faceless government can conjure up. Theirs is an even more terrifying bloodletting. Actually, I learned all of that brutal reality in the past five years, as a target set in the wobbly sights of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's aim.
I don't think the CFIA-group-mind will ever admit they wish they could do an about-face, step swiftly back in time, and run, not walk, the other way, far away from this solo sheep woman who lives for the air, the art, and the animals. But they'd already taken their shot. There was no turning back after realizing they'd fired on the wrong scapesheep.
Where is there to turn when being suffocated in shiny public government-funded lies? Dealing with the compassion factor of an entity instead of an individual has a decidedly different effect on the outcome. All bets are off. Empathy dissolves through the sights of their firing squad.
Kill first, ask questions later, is not the best method to conserve any kind of rare breed. I requested that Canada's Minister of Agriculture Gerry Ritz implement alternative risk-management methods with a "Rare Heritage Breed Exemption" to the current CFIA Scrapie Protocol, which would protect all future flocks—and Canada's genetic diversity. The CFIA did not even acknowledge my proposal, which included a five-year surveillance and quarantine plan for my farm and sheep. In desperation I offered to sacrifice all but eleven of my best genetics to them, with a plea to amend their current scrapie policy in order to save anyone else's rare breeds from being needlessly destroyed. Nothing. Nor did they listen to the eleven thousand petitioners demanding the same thing on change.org.
By daring to question a government, I had begun to travel down a long dark road, learning some very scary things. With an inexhaustible supply of taxpayer dollars and a superfluous number of relatively incompetent employees, a horrific degree of harm can be done.
They misidentified sheep. They lost sheep. They wrote false certificates saying my lambs had scrapie when they didn't. Just before the "dispatch" date of my forty-one death row sheep, the CFIA demanded I hire an excavator to dig a deep grave, and said they would kill them before my eyes, behead them all, and leave me to bury their bodies while they drove off with their brains for testing. That part of the notice alone made my head explode. So a 15-foot pit was dug at the top of my hill overlooking the farm. The hill they had so peacefully grazed for so many years.
Upon learning about the on-farm rally being organized to protest their kill order, the CFIA changed their plans and decided to load my sheep for a stressful five-hour transport to a killing facility at a pet food plant near Ottawa, and advised me that I'd have to foot the bill.
Thousands of outraged and sympathetic people called, emailed, and messaged, many saying they'd take, hide, or move the sheep to protect them.
The CFIA arrived early on April 2, 2012 to remove the flock, but the sheep were gone, with only a note left in their place. It read: "We have taken the animals into protective custody until an alternative to killing has been found or conclusive independent proof or clear evidence of disease has been proven. This has been done without knowledge or participation of the owner. [Signed] Farmers Peace Corp."
Since that day many people have asked me, "Did you hide them?" No, I did not. "Did you know where they were?" No, no idea. (I'd like to explain further, but we're in the middle of the preliminary inquiry and fighting a publication ban we never asked for. I will clarify the details when I take the stand at our upcoming criminal trial, which could be scheduled for the end of 2015 or early 2016.)
When my flock was discovered months later on a distant property in the Grey-Bruce region of Ontario, I first learned about it on social media; the CFIA did not even inform me. The man who had the sheep on his Chesley farm initially posted on Facebook, wondering if his new flock were the "missing sheep." Apparently his memory recovered and he readily pointed his finger at raw milk advocate Michael Schmidt, allegedly in exchange for a promise that he himself would not be charged. Robert Pinnell, a friend of Schmidt's who lived and worked on the same farm cooperative, was also implicated.
The CFIA pushed ahead quickly before it was all over the news, killing the sheep—and their newborns and their unborn—within days. Each and every one of the "dead" scrapie tests subsequently came back negative, just as their live tests had.
The CFIA hadn't let me identify the sheep and didn't have the moral decency to save the genetics by preserving testes, sperm, and ovaries, as I was led to believe had been arranged with the Canadian Animal Genetic Resources (CAGR) program.
The CFIA continued to issue press releases declaring the high risk to the nation and the "dangerous" nature of the missing sheep situation. The CFIA claimed they "understood" what a severe impact their procedures had on "affected" producers, implying, even after the "dead" tests had come back negative, that my flock had indeed been infected with disease. They were not. They announced publicly that they'd properly compensate producers for their losses. None of that was true. They have never given me anything, unless one counts the nine criminal charges.
Armed with search warrants, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency investigators and Ontario Provincial Police raided my home and that of Michael Schmidt at dawn on an August day in 2012. They carried on for almost thirteen hours.
The real charge is for trying to save Canada's heritage sheep and preserve our country's agricultural biodiversity. Michael Schmidt, Robert Pinnell, former Ontario Farmer reporter Suzanne Atkinson, and I were subsequently charged with various criminal offences, including obstructing a CFIA inspector, conspiracy to commit same, transport or causing to transport an animal under quarantine, and several more. Suzanne Atkinson opted to negotiate a plea bargain when the CFIA offered her a deal in exchange for becoming the Crown witness for the prosecution.
The domino effect of the CFIA's invasion meant selling off my heritage turkey breeding stock because I had no money to feed them. My beautiful pastured Tamworth pigs and two white Percheron mares, as well. My farm truck died. Then my car followed suit in December, so I was fairly isolated through the next seven winter months.
After their raids I became severely depressed and began having anxiety attacks whenever a car drove down the laneway. (Is it THEM again?) Pounding chest pain, shortness of breath, forgetfulness, inability to concentrate, and immobilization were constants. I still can't look at photos of my now deceased sheep. I broke down crying while sorting old pedigrees. I ended up in tears at things that should have been joyful, like the first robins of the year, or the sound of the first spring peepers, because I could no longer feel the beauty around me or on the farm. The world had been muddied.
On the saddest grey days a sprinkle of light rain seemed enough to dissolve my frail being into the thawing ground, along with vague images of a former life. I'm told my symptoms are those of post-traumatic stress disorder and I'm trying to change it now, to heal. Surely I am stronger—and better—than an unthinking, faceless government body.
What the CFIA has done, and continues to do, is very wrong. More people must realize what our government agencies are capable of doing with the powers vested in them, all under the pretence of protecting us.
The encouragement of all those who have been following this story on my Shropshire website has been a huge support and reminds me that we are all in this together, no matter how different our personal suffering or challenges. This is not the worst thing that has ever happened to anybody, but it is happening, and it needs to stop.
The other day a friend I hadn't seen in a long while looked carefully at me and said that the government had ruined my life. It's not hard to see why one would think this. My life has changed, and so have I. But ruined? That's too easy. I don't choose to give the CFIA that much power...they could only ruin my life if I offered it to them. Yes, they've tried, and are still trying, but I know there is a higher purpose. There has to be.
Innocent sheep, and my heritage flock in particular, stood for everything good. Shropshires are symbolic of our ancestors, pioneers, history, peace, old-fashioned farming, homesteads, real food and family values, longevity. How could a federal government agency wreak such a horror upon these precious things?
I was never one to be led by the mob psychology of government. Thinking and being for oneself is the only direction that ever made sense. I don't know if he tended sheep during his lifetime, but the philosopher Osho urges us all to become our real selves, adding that the real self is "dangerous to the state and dangerous to the crowd, because once a person knows their real self, they become an individual."
He points out that an individual cannot be exploited, cannot be led like sheep, cannot be ordered and commanded. That person will live according to their own light, live from their own inwardness. Their life will have tremendous beauty and integrity. "And that is the fear of our government," he said.
I realize that great change can only come about with great transformation. No matter how much it hurts.
Life on a farm does teach about life, but also the nature of death. Not the manufactured, unnecessary variety created by the CFIA, however. Such malice towards me and my farm and animals was an unexpected brutality. I wasn't prepared for the ensuing shock and disaster that followed, and fell too far into post-traumatic stress and depression to even realize it.
I know, too, that thinking of "them" en masse lets them off the hook too easily...each CFIA employee is a person with choices. I personally could not spend my days killing healthy animals if I had initially set out to be a life-saving veterinarian. I could not spend my days lying or hiding truths, or setting up innocent people for the sake of ensuring my weekly salary and benefits. I couldn't see a huge mistake and then try to hide the facts. To say they were "just doing their jobs" does not address the issue, especially with the latest possible evidence that they might not actually have been doing their jobs at all.
The identification of the scrapie-infected sheep was a question in my mind from the beginning. Apparently it was on the CFIA's mind too—to a much greater degree. Copies of the internal reports and emails that were never meant to be discovered could very well be "sitting in the embassy offices of the agriculture departments of our trading partners, the offices of agriculture organizations dedicated to exporting our livestock genetics, and some federal politicians," Ian Cumming wrote in the March issue of Farmers Forum newspaper. All of them may also be wondering how this information will be received by the public when the real facts finally come out at the trial.
The CFIA has dragged out one thing after another in an obvious effort to drain our resolve and our resources, including an effort to stop me and Michael Schmidt from having our legal counsel of choice, and withholding highly significant disclosure that we've requested for several years.
The most recent court appearance in March was to argue our right to have an open and transparent preliminary inquiry. Crown Prosecutor Damien Frost rushed to put a publication ban in place after the National Post newspaper and several blogs published portions of internal CFIA documents that suggest a possible government cover-up, and raise further questions about lab sample tampering and the true identity of the original sheep with scrapie.
The prosecution is clearly embarrassed and wants to keep all of this quiet. If our judicial system is to be fair, then this case can no longer continue to be shuffled along. I had the distinct feeling in court that there was no point in even showing up the day we argued against a publication ban. The Crown and judge might as well have shared their ideas about how to word the ban by bantering over a beer in a nearby pub.
In my view, the federal government seems intent to destroy beauty, control individuals and thinkers, and support all government and industry, no matter what dies or who lies.
From woolly sheep and farm life to criminal charges and gag orders. I look around some days and wonder how I got here from there. In large part I'm still afloat due to the unwavering love and support of my son, Fox Jones, inspiration gleaned from my co-accused, Michael Schmidt and Robert Pinnell, the ethics and experience of our exceptional lawyer Shawn Buckley, the tenacious honesty of lawyer Karen Selick, and the Canadian Constitution Foundation standing up for us.
It's also because thousands of friends and supporters have given their hearts and money (via a gofundme.com campaign) to keep me going through it all. There too, is a huge lesson in compassion. If I can get to my fundraising goal I can keep fighting. Our legal defence costs will be huge, but surely nothing close to the estimated one million taxpayer dollars the CFIA has to date spent on this case.
After all of this painful pummelling, a truer appreciation for life might finally be emerging. I'm getting glimpses of beauty again in the tiniest examples of existence. I have no money. That's okay, because I know that will eventually change. The important thing is I see life where I didn't before, and I'm glad I'm alive. Sure, I might go to prison if the CFIA has its way, but I have an incredible son I love very much, a heavenly farm if they don't take it away, and gratitude for just being here.
Maybe the sheep and I—heck, all of us—should be tried in the court of real life. The truth is in the farms, in the fields, in the republic of Earth, under a bluer sky that doesn't ever judge. I felt so dirty after the energy drain in provincial court that I came home and lay down outside in the hay and muck and melting snow with the two glorious lambs I have left.
I have five adults too, but had to sell my other dozen when I learned the preliminary hearing dates were the same as their birthing dates. I couldn't bear the thought of being away every day in court and returning to frozen dead lambs—and more CFIA-caused sheep death.
"They" may never know how to disengage from their lies or their government identity, or absolve themselves from producing poisonous dirt. Imagine if they could discover the real dirt on a farm as purely beautiful as mine. They'll never understand how they missed the entire point in this sheep case, or how life's most important lesson unfolded unbeknownst to them.
The Crown and the many minions of the CFIA should find a real moment with the earth, with a live conscious lamb, and with themselves. It might shift their tunnelled perspective. It might even change their sad lives.
May my lovely dead sheep and I one day forgive them their dull ignorance of all things bright and beautiful.
Important information and links
Join Montana Jones, Joel Salatin, and others at Wholearth Farmstudio on Sunday, July 13 for LifeStock.
For background information and updates on the sheepnapping trial, go here.
If you'd like to help Montana Jones and her farm out financially, visit their Go Fund Me.
To sign a petition urging Agriculture Minister Gerald Ritz to stop killing healthy animals, go here.