Foot and mouth 'war zone' declared in North Yorks: 50,000 sheep to be tested to stop spread into premier pig farms

Foot and mouth 'war zone' declared in North Yorks:
50,000 sheep to be tested to stop spread into premier pig farms

July 31, 2001 The Guardian (London) by Peter Hetherington and 
Patrick Wintour

Government vets are to test 50,000 sheep in North Yorkshire in the most intensive campaign yet against foot and mouth, amid renewed concern that the virus could spread to Britain's premier pig farms a few miles to the south.

Police and council trading standards officers yesterday started patrolling roads and farm gates round the clock in a new 900 square mile biosecurity zone near the town of Thirsk, where a cluster of cases suggests the disease could be out of control.

Ministers blame some farmers for spreading foot and mouth by ignoring safety regulations and moving animals and vehicles illegally.

Yesterday's tough measures came as the government moved to curb abuse of a compensation scheme that has so far paid out almost pounds 1bn.

Following allegations that private assessors were collud ing with farmers to considerably inflate the value of slaughtered animals, Elliot Morley, the animal health minister, announced the cessation of the government's minimum standard rate, and that all valuations would be made by independent valuers chosen by the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

The minimum, or floor on prices, has been used by valuers chosen by farmers as a basis on which to claim much higher prices in determining compensation. Government sources claim cattle prices have risen by 50% since the outbreak, when there has been no market for the animals.

In North Yorkshire, the security measures will mean officials from Defra riding shotgun on licensed milk and feed lorries to ensure vehicles are properly disinfected. Farmers or hauliers breaking regulations face fines of up to pounds 5,000. It follows the decision to slaughter 9,000 pigs at Skipton-on-Swale, near Thirsk, as a precaution because their breeding unit was classed as a "dangerous contact". The owners run another farm nearby which went down with foot and mouth at the weekend.

The action follows the culling of 4,000 sheep in the Brecon Beacons after tests showed foot and mouth anti-bodies. Last night the National Assembly for Wales announced that further tests on 2,000 sheep in the Beacons had found foot and mouth, and that officials were contacting graziers to discuss what to do.

Ministers will wait 30 days to assess the success in North Yorkshire before deciding whether to either introduce biosecurity zones elsewhere, or finally opt for a limited vaccination to curb the spread of foot and mouth. Alarm bells will start ringing if anti-bodies are found in any of the 50,000 - raising the prospect of slaughter exceeding the cull in the Beacons at the weekend.

Defra officials are desperate to prevent foot and mouth spreading to the pig breeding areas of East Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, which have been labelled potential "virus factories" by Steve Hunter, in charge of the department's North Yorkshire security zone.

The measures come amid allegations that some farmers are deliberately spreading the disease. Yesterday, Dyfed Powys police investigated an allegation that a farmer in Wales was offered for pounds 2,000 a sheep infected with foot and mouth. Detectives contacted Nuala Preston, of Trefoel stud farm in Pembrokeshire, who said she had a phone call from a man who told her the animal could spread foot and mouth in her flock so she could claim compensation.

Lord Whitty, the farming minister, will try to balance the tough measures by revealing an emergency package to help the sheep industry.

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