TOKYO — Farmers forced to flee Japan's leaking nuclear plant are braving high levels of radiation inside the exclusion zone in a desperate bid to save their cattle -- and their way of life.
But with more than 10,000 animals largely left to fend for themselves since the tsunami knocked out the Fukushima plant's cooling systems, causing the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl, the future for many breeders looks grim.
Dairy farmer Hiroaki Hiruta has returned to feed his cows regularly since his village was evacuated, but rarely has enough time to hand-feed the younger animals.
On Monday "I found five calves dead in their pens, their bodies just skin and bones. They had died from hunger and their bodies had been ravaged by wild animals," the 43-year-old told AFP.
"Their organs were ripped out, their ears chewed off. Ravens had poked their eyes out. I didn't have time to bury them, so I laid out them the best way I could and left them there."
In their haste to flee a government-mandated 20-kilometre (12-mile) exclusion zone, most farmers abandoned their livestock, locked in their sheds and unable to feed themselves.
A few have ignored the ban and returned to feed their animals, the cornerstone of their lives.
Some farmers have reportedly refused to leave the area at all, but their numbers cannot be confirmed as phone lines remain down.
Once the pride of Fukushima prefecture, prized for their marbled beef and rich milk, most of the 10,000 or so cattle in the exclusion zone are feared dead, a local farm official said.
Thousands of pigs, chickens and other livestock probably also died in their cages or pens with no food or water, he added. The luckier ones escaped electric fences into the wild when the power went out.
Hiruta is a third-generation farmer who owns 130 Holstein cattle in the picture-postcard town of Naraha, some 14 kilometres south of the plant.
"These cows are like family. I owe my life to them. I know I shouldn't be doing this, but I can't accept this situation," he told AFP by telephone.
"When I enter the shed the cows start mooing. At times they sound like cries for help, at others as if they were saying how much they had waited for me. You have to hear them to understand," he added.
"Before I leave them for the day I tell myself that this may be the last time I see them alive, and I take my cap off and bow. I think the cows understand me. Once, they all fell silent as I bowed. It was very strange."
Hiruta takes the back roads when he returns, hoisting hay onto his truck and heading out to his farm to fill up feed troughs.
He says Nahara is a "ghost town", where he sees no one except the occasional worker in a white protective suit driving to or from the plant.
Granaries outside the exclusion zone are the only way officials have of keeping track of activity in the area, with farmers arriving to pick up feed for their animals, said Masahiro Oka, an official at the Fukushima prefecture dairy association.
"The farmers tell us, 'When cows are our lives how can we just get rid of them and leave?'
"Although we plead with them that their lives are more important we understand how they feel and so can't ask the Self-Defence Forces to forcefully evacuate them."
Mitsuhide Ikeda, 49, was spared the gruesome discovery of dead animals on his only return to his farm in Okuma town, five kilometres from the nuclear plant.
After only a few hours inside the zone, Ikeda's exposure to radiation was measured at five millisieverts -- five times the normal annual level.
All 32 of his cattle had disappeared, probably through broken electric fences.
But he fears the nuclear accident may put paid to the 130-year-old family farming history as a producer of the region's famed Japanese Black breed.
Income from his farm and a side-job as a company employee supported his parents, his wife and two sons -- one of whom is sick. That income now looks like it has gone.
A third of his cattle were new-born calves and six others were due to give birth soon. "I can't image how they are. I am worried about the little ones who need to be hand-fed," he said.
Even if he finds the cows again, he fears he will not be able to sell them.
"No one will want to buy them because they will be highly contaminated. Unfortunately I think they will need to be slaughtered," he said.
But farmers have not given up -- many say they are ready to return to their land as soon as the government allows, and if plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co offers enough compensation.
TEPCO said Tuesday it had offered "consolation payments" of an initial 20 million yen ($236,000) to 10 municipalities in Fukushima.
However, the overall compensation scheme for farmers remains unclear.
"This situation may continue for several weeks but it is unsustainable," said Hiruta. "I only have feed until end of June, and beyond that I have no hope for the survival of my cows."
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