For weeks, whenever I've watched the news with the children around, I've had my finger poised over the remote control button. The screen goes blank repeatedly. Now, the Easter trip to the Lake District looks implausible. Why? Ask the children.
Will foot and mouth kill us? No. Is it killing the animals? No. How do you explain this mass killing to a six-year-old? The more you try, the more stark the collective madness becomes. Those mass graves, the funeral pyres of healthy animals. The death toll creeping close to the one million mark, those condemned to die numbered in hundreds of thousands more: the neat little charts of lines soaring ever upwards.
It's as if we have all gone dizzy with zeros: thousands of animals are dying, millions of pounds have been lost, billions more pounds at risk. It has numbed our critical faculties so that, dazed, the only debate is why the killing can't be quicker, when the election should be or the usual blame-game - it's the government's fault, it's a Chinese restaurant or it's the farmers' own fault. Environmentalists, to their shame, seem to have seen this solely as an opportunity for "I told you so", a chance to capitalise on their crusade against modern farming.
But if environmentalism is about anything, it is about a profound challenge to human beings' terrible arrogance and destructiveness towards all other forms of life with which we share the planet. That's not just dolphins, tigers and foxes, but the thousands of cows and sheep we seem quite prepared to slaughter.
Ah, you say, but all these lovely cows and sheep were going to be slaughtered anyway, so what's it matter if they end their lives in a limed pit a few months earlier? Call me fanciful, but I see a world of difference between life sustaining other forms of life and a wanton waste of life. Most cultures in human history have seen that distinction, hence the ethic of many hunting societies in which you kill for your need, not for your greed.
That rubric has ensured a balance between human life and other species at many times in many places in human history. It doesn't romanticise, or sentimentalise the fact that all life depends and often preys on other life; the universe is a cycle of destruction as well as creation. In turn, my body will support the worms and the daisies. That kind of thinking means I gave up vegetarianism long ago and I've never been that interested in animal rights.
But what we are witnessing now is the nadir of western industrialised societies' total disregard for animals. The mass graves at Great Orton represent the triumph of greed over any other relationship we have to other forms of life. The almost complete absence of any serious debate about whether it is right to kill this kind of quantity of animals is, quite literally, unbelievable.
Where are the animal rights protesters who have been making the lives of the scientists hell at Huntingdon Life Sciences? Where are the hunt saboteurs? Why is it wrong to experiment on a few dozen kittens or monkeys but quite all right to kill hundreds of thousands of sheep? Who's mad and who sane when a government committed to bringing in legislation on fox hunting is presiding over the biggest slaughter of animals in human history?
The RSPCA is concerned that some sheep are not being properly killed and might be buried alive. Compassion for World Farming is worried that normal legislation banning animals being killed within sight of each other has had to be suspended. Isn't this fiddling while Rome burns? They don't question the big picture of this killing orgy. Will we be as docile, accepting the experts' arguments when the trained marksmen roam the countryside shooting the wild deer, wild ponies, birds and foxes and poison is laid down for hedgehogs?
At what point do we discover some remnant of morality and recognise that our corner of the planet and its residents are not here simply for our sake? How can we lecture America on global warming when we are applying a similar principle? Most importantly, at what point do we say enough is enough, the end simply doesn't justify the means?
Perhaps the Herdwick sheep was the point for me. A rare breed, they are at risk of being completely wiped out. Beatrix Potter's healthy herd is one of several designated for slaughter simply because of proximity to infected farms. Having spent more time than I once thought possible reading Potter, and building Lego farms, how am I to explain to children where the lambs have gone?
And no, the fascination of small children with farms and domestic animals is not sentimental (certainly not in the broad moral universe of Potter where, for every coy Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, there is a sadistic Samuel Whiskers), it is the instinctive curiosity about life, about being alive and what is alive. Why else are Sea Monkeys such a hit?
A touching detail about the Herdwick: they graze on the fells but they have no need of fences or shepherds because they pass on knowledge of their boundaries from ewe to lamb over generations. We know and respect this kind of intelligence in elephants but not sheep: how come the latter have been relegated to the lowest rung in our hierarchy of species?
How dare we criticise poaching in Africa for ivory or in India for tiger skins, when at least many of the poachers kill out of genuine need? Or take another analogy which also demonstrates our insufferable moral double standards. Those Herdwick sheep are part of British heritage, as much as stately homes and country churches; so how can we criticise the Taliban for destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas?
Mad analogies? Maybe, but it's becoming harder and harder to work out what's sane and what's mad. A whole set of considerations have been erased from the debate. At this time of year one of the greatest delights is lambs playing in the fields, but we understand the tragedy of this catastrophe only in terms of its effect on the farmers - their income and their lives - rather than the animals themselves. But how come these animals don't have rights? We share up to 90% of our genetic material with these creatures who feel pain and anxiety.
The most cursory philosophical knowledge exposes the flimsiness of the intellectual constructs by which we have awarded ourselves rights, and sheep and cows none, as JM Coetzee explores in his novel, The Lives of Animals. These considerations have been totally subordinated to an economic rationale of productivity, efficiency and export markets from which almost no one demurs (farmers, government, animal welfare groups). It's a terrible indictment of a culture that our accommodation with the market has so numbed us that we can see no other way of viewing the world and all its occupants. Who now are the brutes when we have become so brutal?
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001