No end in sight to foot-and-mouth as slaughter continues: Outbreaks have slowed but many of the farmers affected will not be returning to agriculture.

No end in sight to foot-and-mouth as slaughter continues:
Outbreaks have slowed but many of the farmers affected will not be returning to agriculture.

August 20, 2001 Financial Times (London) by David White

Thousands of farm animals are still being destroyed every day in the effort to eradicate foot-and-mouth disease, six months after the epidemic began - confounding expectations that it would by now be over.

With the disease no longer at the centre of attention, a semblance of normality has been restored for visitors to the British countryside. In most places, they can now use paths that were closed for fear that they might spread the disease.

New cases have slowed to a trickle, but there are still on average two or three new outbreaks a day. "We don't hear about them because it's old news," said Martin Howarth, National Farmers' Union policy director. The acceleration of foot-and-mouth in the early weeks, which caused a backlog of animals scheduled for slaughter, followed the forecast pattern. But it was thought that from July there would be no more than a few sporadic cases.

The government claimed after 2 1/2 months to have the disease under control. But an agriculture official said the virus had proved "pretty recalcitrant". "There's no indication to say when it's going to stop," he admitted. "But it's not spreading."

While some of the worst-hit areas, such as the Scottish lowlands, are almost free of the disease, foot-and-mouth remains entrenched in parts of northern England, and there is speculation that it might erupt again if it carries on past the summer.

But the public horror at the epidemic's early stages, when carcases were being burnt in heaps, has dissipated. In February, some 2,000 animals were culled, causing widespread revulsion. In recent weeks, twice that number have been slaughtered daily.

So far 3.75m animals have been killed, eight times as many as in Britain's last big foot-and-mouth crisis 34 years ago.

This month the government launched three independent inquiries - one into its own handling of the crisis, another into the future of farming, and a scientific review - bringing to 10 the total of investigations related to the epidemic.

The cost to the government of dealing with foot-and-mouth, partly reimbursable by the European Union, is put at more than Pounds 2bn (Dollars 2.9bn). Mr Howarth said farmers would have to bear at least a further Pounds 1bn.

Exports, which in the sheep sector amounted to almost a third of production, have been barred since the first outbreak.

"A considerable proportion of those who've had all their livestock slaughtered and had compensation will not come back," said Mr Howarth, and the rate of people leaving the sector had increased in the previous two years. It could be two years before many farmers have restocked and can resume sales.

Farms that have escaped the disease have been hit by restrictions - now eased - on the movement of animals. "In some senses, the people who have had the disease and been compensated are better off," Mr Howarth said. Many rural businesses have suffered badly.

Rights of way on footpaths in most regions were restored last month. This was despite objections by some farmers and local authorities.

The Ramblers' Association, which has campaigned for access to the countryside since the 1930s, said no case of foot-and-mouth had been attributed to footpath users.

Nine out of 10 country paths are open. But some restrictions remain, especially in parts of the Lake District in north-west England, the worst-hit region, the Yorkshire moors and dales, and Wales's Brecon Beacons national park.

Despite the official message of business as usual, Britain is littered with reminders of the epidemic. Areas still partly out of bounds include the Pennine Way trail, along the spine of northern England, and Offa's Dyke, the 8th-century earthwork roughly following the England-Wales border.

The National Trust charity said 98 per cent of its historic homes and gardens and 92 per cent of its land were now open. But 25 properties in England and Wales remained shut. Several dozen run by English Heritage are also closed, but the government agency said the impact on visitor numbers was likely to be smaller than initially feared.

The British Tourist Authority said spending by overseas visitors this year - initially on course for a record Pounds 13bn - was expected to fall 10 per cent short because of foot-and-mouth.

Despite advertising campaigns to reassure visitors that there was no risk to their health, tourists continued to associate the virus with the earlier BSE ("mad cow") epidemic.

"The perception hasn't gone away. It's a definite blur on our image," the authority said. "Until foot-and-mouth is entirely gone there's a limit as to how much we can do."

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