Foot and mouth spreads to wild deer population

April 22, 2001 The Observer by Anthony Browne

THE foot and mouth virus has passed into Britain's wild deer population raising fears that livestock will be re-infected for years to come.

The revelation makes the Government's policy of mass slaughter of farmyard livestock futile.

There have been several cases of vets clinically identifying the disease in wild deer, some of which have died from it. There have also been many reports from Devon, Cumbria and Northumberland of deer exhibiting other behaviour linked to the disease.

Veterinary experts say it is impossible to vaccinate or cull effectively wild deer and once infected they will act as a reservoir for the virus. It will make it almost impossible for Britain to rid itself of the virus, until it dies out naturally in wild deer, which could take years.

Last week a roe deer was found dead at Kirk House Farm near Penrith, which had already been confirmed as having foot and mouth in livestock. Local vet Matt Coulston, of Frame Swift and Partners, identified lesions on all four hooves and in its mouth. 'It had signs consistent with foot and mouth disease,' he told The Observer . 'There have been loads of people round here reporting dead and sick deer. People suspect that Maff (the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) are ignoring it because it is difficult to deal with.'

The British Deer Society has been flooded with reports from deer experts reporting the animals limping and being covered with lumps. Mike Squire, secretary of the society, said: 'We find it difficult to believe that deer exposed to the same pastures as infected cattle and sheep have not been exposed to foot and mouth disease.'

A Maff spokesman said yesterday that government vets had tested nine deer for foot and mouth and none had been found positive: 'So far there have been no confirmed cases of foot and mouth in deer.' However, the Maff vets use the Elisa test, which was developed on cattle and sheep and is not thought to be so effective on deer. Research from Russia also suggests it is very difficult to test from blood samples whether deer have been infected.

In 1974 the government Animal Health Institute in Pirbright kept a number of deer in proximity to sheep with foot and mouth for two hours. The scientists found all six native species of deer contracted the disease, and several died.

In an outbreak of foot and mouth in California in 1924, the outbreak spread rapidly to deer. Slaughtermen culled 22,000 deer in the Stanislav National Park and found that, of those, 2,279 were infected.

Dr John Fletcher, past president of the Veterinary Deer Society, said: 'It's highly likely the virus has entered the wild deer population - the deer are in abundance and graze in close contact with sheep and cattle. Nothing has been confirmed, but there is an abundance of anecdotal evidence, and it would be quite surprising if it hasn't entered the population.'

Simon Booth, director of the Deer Initiative, the government advisory body on deer in England, said: 'There have been unconfirmed cases of it appearing in deer.'

Deer experts have been calling on Maff for weeks to conduct a selective deer cull to ascertain the extent of the disease and to draw up contingency plans. However, Maff ignored their warnings until it called an emergency meeting on Friday. It is now considering lifting the ban on deer-stalking to provide the carcasses for tests.

The existence of the disease in Britain's 1.5 million wild deer population means the policy of mass slaughter of more than a million farm animals and the closure of swathes of the British countryside has been pointless. Wild deer are difficult to track down making it impossible to vaccinate or cull them. Shoot ing at herds of deer will simply cause them to run, spreading the disease further.

Squire said: 'We're looking at a huge slaughter and cost to the taxpayer for no purpose.' Booth said: 'If it's in the deer population, it will mean the mass slaughter policy will not work.'

Confirmation of foot and mouth in deer will force the Government to abandon the mass slaughter programme, a move that has been steadfastly resisted by the National Farmers Union. 'It will force their hand into vaccination,' said Fletcher.

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