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 Sunday, 29 December, 2002, 15:35 GMT
Is goat tradition under threat?
The Queen in the House of Lords
The Queen's Speech is recorded on vellum
It might have been Robin Cook's little joke - but it sent shock waves through the 132-year-old firm which turns goats skin into the parchment that records the Queen's Speech and Acts of Parliament.

The Leader of the House had mischievously implied that he was planning to launch a "save the goat" campaign and that in future perhaps the Queen could read her speech from an autocue or computer screen.

I would have been worried if it hadn't been a joke

Wim Visscher
To Wim Visscher, the 52-year-old managing director of Buckinghamshire-based William Cowley - the only company in the country that supplies vellum to the Houses of Parliament - the quip was a little near the mark.

His firm in Newport Pagnell employs fewer than 10 people and its contract with Westminster is the most important one it has, allowing him to offer other services like restoring decaying manuscripts for the British Library.

"I would have been worried if it hadn't been a joke," said Mr Visscher, ruefully.

"This contract helps to keep us going in a way because we are a very, very small company."

Magna Carta

Mr Cook, who is determined to modernise the workings of parliament, made the throw-away remarks about autocues and computer screens to journalists attending a Commons press gallery lunch ahead of the Queen's Speech.

It quickly prompted a fierce response from Labour MP Brian White who three years ago successfully fought for the firm's survival when the Commons administration committee argued that printing on archive paper could save 30,000 a year and the skin of several goats.

A goat
Keeping the old methods is bad news for goats
The Milton Keynes North East MP says his colleagues should concentrate on reforming areas of their own working practices, rather than ending a centuries-old tradition.

After all, a host of important events have been recorded on vellum, including the Magna Carta and Charles 1's death warrant.

It is this longevity that Mr Visscher hopes will save parchment, and his business, from a slow death of its own.

'Fire proof'

"Vellum has been proven to last indefinitely - that's the nub of the matter," he said.

"It's a proven material that works and they were suggesting that it should be changed to an unproven material.

"They did talk about money. It would be cheaper to do it on paper - Parliament could save 30,000 a year, or maybe two thirds of that.

"But compared with the money the government spends on paperclips, say, it's not a very sound argument to change from a material that has been used for 400 to 500 years and proven to last indefinitely.

"If somebody wished to set fire to it maliciously with a match or an incendiary device, it would just go out.

"It's many times stronger than paper. If there was some physical damage to a building, the vellum inside it would be pretty much intact."

Even if half the country is vegetarian, there will always be animal skins around

Wim Visscher
The Queen's Speech is printed on vellum by The Stationery Office.

Acts of Parliament, recorded on parchment and dating back to 1497, are currently held in the House of Lords Public Record Office.

"They are there for preservation purposes and for history and the future," said Mr Visscher.

"You know that the material that you have got at the moment is going to last."

Heraldic work

Mr Visscher pooh-poohed suggestions that parliamentary acts could be more efficiently stored on computers as "one of the most risky places you could put them".

"Computers crash. You are dealing with all these little pluses and minuses on a piece of plastic and it's very easy to lose. You have to have copies and back up and it's a complicated way to save stuff for hundreds of years."

Vellum is also used by the College of Arts in London for heraldic work or recording family crests.

"It is nice to give something as a gift that has been made using the same methods as 500 years ago," said Mr Visscher.

"It's like saying 'you're valuable to us'."

Robin Cook
Mr Cook was only joking about modernising the ancient tradition
It takes about a month to make a piece of vellum from a piece of goat, sheep or calf skin, although more than one piece is made at a time.

Sheep skins are softer because they have got natural lanolin.

Goat or calf skins are harder wearing and are used for book binding and for covering furniture.

'Dark ages'

Mr Visscher argues that his industry is environmentally friendly because it uses skins that are a by-product of the farming industry that will "always be there unless Parliament says that nobody should eat meat".

"Even if half the country is vegetarian, there will always be animal skins around," he said.

"If they are not used as material for leather or vellum, they will be thrown away.

"Because our methods are from the dark ages, there are very little chemicals involved so we are not harming the environment."

Mr Visscher is now looking for someone to learn the ropes - it takes three years - and to eventually succeed him in running the William Cowley business.

"I have got daughters and my brothers have sons. They are all interested in this but not as a career," he said.

"I'm looking for someone to work alongside me. I'm not quite old enough yet to retire, but that person would carry on when I do.

"I really want to find somebody who can take us into the future. There may be other materials out there we could use but we don't yet know about."

See also:

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