A German farmer has fitted his cows with bovine diapers because, he says, cowpats constitute a fertiliser high in nitrates and are therefore outlawed by barmy Brussels bureaucrats.
He has shown an admirable flair for poo-blicity – but suggesting there are EU rules that ban cows from hillsides or from leaving their usual deposits is a load of bull.
This is pretty obvious when you think about it: hikers enjoying an autumn walk in the Alpine foothills will come across more cud-chewing cows than they can count, with their rear ends as naked as nature intended, except on one farm where cattle with bedsheets tied round their bottoms seem to have been fighting for grazing room with photographers.
Of course, the British media herd has stampeded all over this story with the Daily Star screaming “EU chiefs spark outrage over plans to force cattle to wear NAPPIES” and The Sun finding an imaginative pun with “Sirloin cloth” and an equally imaginative version of the facts referring to “EU proposals banning pats from Alpine slopes”.
Some media (Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Daily Telegraph, Independent) have the good grace somewhere in their articles – though mostly near the end – to quote the Commission pointing out that no EU law bans Alpine grazing or requires cows to be fitted with nappies.
But many online commenters have been mooved to outrage – one measured contribution accuses the EU of “destroying the world” – which suggests that, as so often, it is the headlines rather than the inconvenient details that have remained in many readers’ minds.
The Daily Mail’s Richard Littlejohn, meanwhile, gives full vent to his anger – and also, to be fair, some splendid puns – saying: “This is of course the kind of complete madness we have come to expect when Euro bureaucracy meets eco-fanaticism”.
He continues: “all sense of proportion goes straight out of the barn door” and “no doubt it will be dismissed by the EU as another myth”.
Well, yes on both counts.
There certainly is EU legislation on nitrates but there is nothing new about it. The 1991 Nitrates Directive aims to control pollution and improve water quality, for very good reason.
Excessive concentrations of nitrates from livestock manure used as fertiliser, as well as from organic and chemical fertilisers, leaking into ground and surface waters have been a major source of water pollution in Europe.
High nitrate levels damage human health, especially vulnerable people like pregnant women and babies, leading to the World Health Organisation establishing a threshold for nitrates contents in drinking waters of a maximum of 50 mg/l.
A disproportionate presence of nitrates in surface waters also promotes excessive algae growth, which chokes out other marine life.
In 2011, for example, algae partly created by fertiliser residue blighted British canals and lakes.
But EU rules – decided by elected Ministers and MEPs, not Brussels bureaucrats – do not stipulate in detail how member states should go about keeping nitrate levels under control.
National and local authorities are best placed to decide that and the German authorities are currently revising their national nitrates action programme.
The headlines were sparked by a statement issued by the Bavarian Farm Union protesting about those national revisions.
But the Commission does not envisage the German authorities proposing to ban grazing animals from Alpine slopes or any other German hillside.
So to sum up, any journalist worth his or her salt would want to milk a “cattle in nappies” story complete with cow-pious photos featuring a traditionally Bavarian-hatted farmer as supporting cast for the be-nappied and bewildered ruminants.
Sadly for some, however, there is no Brussels dairy defecation diaper diktat.
It seems almost a pity that the truth should need to, erm, intrude.