Drudge Report: A million unborn lambs could be slaughtered

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March 14, 2001

A MILLION unborn lambs and their mothers could be slaughtered as the foot-and-mouth crisis deepens. They would be killed in the fields where they have been trapped by movement restrictions.

The Agriculture Ministry fears moving the ewes to the sheds where spring lambing normally takes place could spread the disease. But allowing them to give birth where they are, with no help at hand, could cause appalling suffering.

Hundreds of newborn lambs have already died across the country from complications at birth, cold or attacks by foxes. A mass cull would involve up to 500,000 pregnant ewes, almost all carrying twin lambs. The scale of killing would be so great the Army might have to be called in.

The doomsday option emerged as it was revealed that Tony Blair is to hold emergency talks with farmers' representatives and leaders of other affected industries, including tourism. The Premier admitted last night: 'We simply don't know how foot-and-mouth is going to develop.'

The total number of cattle, sheep and pigs identified for slaughter - or already dead - has passed 150,000. Some 19 new outbreaks were confirmed yesterday bringing the total of infected herds and flocks to 183. Another 122 have been destroyed because they were considered 'dangerous contacts'.

Experts say the country is in the grip of a second wave of the disease, with animals which caught the infection from the original contacts passing it on. The 19 new cases identified yesterday included the first one in the West Midlands, at a cattle farm near Walsall. Officials are urgently trying to track down the source of the infection there.

There was particular concern when a pig herd in Devon was found to be carrying the virus. Pigs with foot and mouth are highly infectious, and a sick herd can create a 'plume' of airborne virus droplets that can travel 40 miles.

The farm, near Winkleigh, is close to a contaminated sheep farm. All 700 pigs were killed on Sunday night, but vets do not know how long they were sending the virus into the air. Agriculture Minister Nick Brown admitted a decision on a sheep cull will have to be made very quickly because many ewes are already giving birth.

He warned: 'If it is necessary for the control of the disease to buy up animals and slaughter them, that is what we will do. You have got to stop the spread of the disease, isolate it and eliminate it.' It is not known how many of the ewes are infected because the symptoms can be difficult to spot in sheep.

Chief vet Jim Scudamore said the Government faced 'immense problems' balancing the need to prevent the spread of the disease with minimising the suffering caused to the animals. He insisted: 'Disease control has to come first. If we let sheep move and they get disease it will spread and you will get deaths among the lambs.'

The Government has developed a licensing system to allow some ewes to be moved short distances. But this accounts for only a small proportion of the 500,000 and many farmers who have applied for permission fear it will not come in time to save their animals.

There is also concern that compensation may be paid only for the slaughtered ewes, not the potential value of the lambs they are carrying.

The problem of dealing with livestock carcasses is also creating massive difficulties. Farmers have complained that bodies are being left to rot in huge piles, creating the risk of the virus spreading via wildlife.

Richard Haddock, a South West regional official of the National Farmers' Union, said some of his members were planning to keep Ministry officials off their land until proper disposal was arranged. He said: 'Farmers are prepared to stand there with shotguns if necessary. There is a lot of stress building up and they have had enough.' Farmers are also furious with horse-racing authorities, who are allowing the sport to continue.

NFU officials said they were 'sending the wrong message' - Irish and French racing has been halted - and the decision had left farmers living near racecourses feeling very vulnerable. But the British Horseracing Board said the Government has given them the all-clear and compared farmers' concerns to over-the-top fears over Aids during the 1980s.

With the crisis showing no sign of abating, there was more criticism of Britain from abroad yesterday. Ireland's natural resources minister Hugh Byrne, who had already accused Mr Brown of scandalously mishandling the situation, called on Britain to ban all animal movements without permits and cancel all sporting activities.

He said: 'We're talking about short-term pain for long-term gain. 'Does Britain want to get itself into the position where it's forced to slaughter its whole herd? Do they want to be named leper of the whole world, and not just Europe?'

Mr Brown rejected the attacks. He insisted once again that the outbreak was under control, although he admitted it was of 'a different order' than previously thought and a long way from being defeated.

Anger was also spreading across Europe, where farmers already blame Britain for the BSE crisis which brought much of the EU cattle industry to its knees.

Italian farmers' leader Adriano Bosco branded Britain 'an island which has farms that are thrown to the wild and veterinary services that leave a lot to be desired.' He demanded: 'Why did they not contain the outbreak of foot and mouth when it first happened?'

A German farmers' spokesman said: 'There is deep anger and resentment at what is perceived as the arrogance of Great Britain. First it exported to us BSE and now it looks like foot and mouth.'

But French ministers and media steered clear of blaming at Britain for the latest crisis. Agriculture minister Jean Glavany described the foot and mouth outbreak as 'unfortunate' and added: 'It will be a miracle if we escape it here.'


-- Swissrose (cellier3@mindspring.com), March 13, 2001

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