The idea that aliens are mutilating farm animals and other creatures began in the USA during the 1960s. Opinion is divided between those who believe the wave of mysterious deaths of cattle that followed can be attributed to predators, nefarious military experiments, cult activity or- whisper it!- real aliens. But it was inevitable that “mutes”, like most other UFOlogical legends, would be exported from the USA to the rest of the world. The phenomenon in the UK is sporadic and has tended to preoccupy the energies of the type of UFO buff that Patrick Moore used to describe as ‘independent thinkers’. We didn’t have to wait long for The Sun to set this hare running and in April, under the frivolous headline “Baas Attacks” we were told that farmers near Shrewsbury in Shropshire had found bodies of sheep which had been “lasered” by mysterious orange lights in the sky, leaving the poor creatures without brains or eyes. Others have been found with neatly drilled holes via which brains and internal organs have been extracted, and so on.
The source for The Sun’s story was ‘UFOlogist’ Phil Hoyle who claims that such mutilations are regularly taking place in a 50-mile "corridor" between Shrewsbury and Powys in Wales. Hoyle’s grandly-named ‘Animal Pathology Field Unit’ was featured briefly on BBC3’s I believe in UFOs programme earlier this year, but his wild claims left even the clueless presenter Danny Dyer lost for words. One of the unit’s investigative activities was to organise a skywatch at one of the farms plagued by extraterrestrial mutilators. Afterwards Hoyle was quoted as saying: “The technology involved in these attacks is frightening. For a short while it looked more like a Star Wars battle. These lights and spheres are clearly not ours. They are built by technology and intelligence that's not from here.” The following day he quizzed farmers (none of whom were named or quoted) in the vicinity and found that "all but one had some type of unusual disappearance of animals or deaths with strange injuries".
Now I can understand why The Sun runs this type of 'flat earth' story but when it is picked up by the Press Association and repeated by the Daily Telegraph (5 April 2010) you begin to realize how far fact-checking has declined in British journalism.
For his 2008 book Flat Earth News Nick Davies commissioned Cardiff University to survey the contents of four ‘quality’ newspapers (Times, Guardian, Independent and Telegraph) during two random weeks to assess the source of their editorial content. He found that a massive 80% of the content was drawn from either agency and/or PR sources. That left just 12% of the content that appeared to be generated through the efforts of the paper’s own reporters. This is what Davies calls churnalism - but essentially it is lazy journalism and it is endemic in newsrooms everywhere. Stories like this one are copied without the most basic checks and endlessly recycled on the internet.
Perhaps I’m taking this too seriously – after all newspapers run daft stories every day, as their role is to entertain as well as to inform. But any journalist worthy of the name should have asked why farmers – not usually known for their lack of initiative when it comes to pursuing claims for loss of livestock - had not reported these mutilations to the police or the authorities, or made any claims for compensation. At an even more basic level, who are these farmers and why isn't a single source - apart from Hoyle - named in the story?
It took me less than half an hour to make some basic inquiries with the Animal Health team that is responsible for the Welsh Border region (part of the Department for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs). This established the team had not received a single complaint from farms in this region or even any report of an unexplained animal mutilation during the past five years. But why let the facts get in the way of a good story?