Disease might be hiding in the hills: Autumn could see the return of foot-and-mouth carnage

Disease might be hiding in the hills:
Autumn could see the return of foot-and-mouth carnage

July 24, 2001 Financial Times (London) by John Mason and Jim Pickard

The new measures introduced yesterday to fight foot-and-mouth disease in the North Yorkshire "cluster" of farms underline just how resilient the disease is proving to be.

The government always warned that the epidemic would prove to have a "long tail". But ministers were hopeful that the virus could be killed off entirely by hot weather over the summer, avoiding any possibility that the disease could "take off" again once colder and wetter weather arrives.

However, there are growing doubts that the disease can be eradicated across the country before the autumn.

More worrying for both ministers and farmers is the possibility that the virus could jump from infected farms in North Yorkshire into the heart of the pig-farming industry in the east of the country.

According to Peter Jinman, junior vice-president of the British Veterinary Association, this could prove "catastrophic", given the ability of pigs to replicate the virus in huge quantities and spread it on the wind.

This could force the government to change its strategy of relying on a slaughter policy. Instead, it could be forced to begin vaccinating animals to contain the disease, he said.

A policy of "ring-fence" vaccination over a large area with animals killed afterwards, would probably have to be adopted, he said.

In other parts of the country, the statistics show the government still has a large challenge ahead of it. The spread of the disease has fallen from its peak in March and April to an average of about 3 or 4 new cases a day.

However, it has remained at this level since the beginning of June, with no sign of falling further. The number of animals slaughtered stands at about 3.6m.

In both Cumbria and Devon, concern centres on the possibility that the virus might be so endemic in hill-flock sheep that the areas would experience a second wave of the disease in the autumn.

Tests in Cumbria have so far shown very little infection in these flocks, to the relief of ministers and farmers alike. In mid-Wales, which become a hot-spot after Cumbria and where testing of sheep began later, these fears have yet to be allayed.

Tests have so far been carried out on 3,500 of the 10,000 sheep that graze on the Brecon Beacons national park, and the results are expected at the weekend.

Malcolm Thomas, director of the National Farmers Union in Wales, said: "We are on tenterhooks because if it is on common land in Wales, those common lands run into each other and it would be almost impossible to find ways of controlling the disease.

"We are not only looking at other commons but also the contiguous farms to those commons. If it is there, the logistics of the exercise become mind-boggling."

The warning follows comments from the RSPCA that the disease could flare up again this autumn because the 9m ewes that graze on British hillsides will spread the disease when they return to valley pastures in September.

Footpaths on the Brecons, which had been reopened to the public, have since been sealed off.

The length of the epidemic has been devastating for farmers, according to the NFU. North Cumbria NFU secretary Nick Utting said: "People are getting very depressed. It doesn't look as though we are getting to the end of the disease, and the government are not showing a lot of interest."

Ministers had still to announce whether they would approve a compensation scheme for the 2m lambs that might have to be slaughtered because export markets had disappeared, he said.

Mr Jinman said farmers worst-affected were those whose animals had not been slaughtered but were subject to movement restrictions. They had no income because they could not sell their animals, but received no compensation.

"These are the forgotten people," he said.

The failure to compensate such farmers meant there was almost an incentive for farms to become infected with the disease, he said.

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