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100,000 sheep to be slaughtered

by Patrick Hennessy and Patrick Sawer Ministers are to order the mass slaughter of at least 100,000 sheep in a desperate "pre-emptive strike" against the further spread of foot-and-mouth disease. Agriculture Minister Nick Brown said moves would be made to "take out" apparently healthy animals that were transported throughout the country by two firms of livestock dealers before the recent outbreak was detected.

Government scientists believe these movements - which number around 1,000 - were responsible for much of the spread of the outbreak that has left large parts of the countryside in quarantine.

Mr Brown will give full details of the programme of "intensified slaughter" to MPs tomorrow. It will involve all sheep known to have been moved by the dealers in question and will number at least 100,000 - although Downing Street said the final total could run into "hundreds of thousands".

Sheep will be killed "on suspicion", whether there is evidence that they have foot-and-mouth or not.

The plans were high on the agenda at this morning's Cabinet meeting, and the Downing Street spokesman added: "The idea is to intensify the cull of animals that can be identified through those particular move-ments, where they may have come into contact with the infectivity, as a pre-emptive strike."

Mr Brown told Radio Four's World At One: "We understand how it has been caused. It's the move-ments within the industry - it's been spread unwittingly by dealers.

"In order to pre-empt what may be incubating, we're looking at taking out healthy animals which are at risk on a precautionary basis. What we don't know is how much infectivity is among the national flock, nor do we know where it is incubating."

Meanwhile, the newly-formed rural taskforce will be examining ways of easing access restrictions in those parts of the country that appear to have escaped the outbreak.

Cheshire became the latest area to fall victim to foot-and-mouth when a farm was today confirmed to have the infection. Officials have admitted they keep discovering previously unrecorded movements of sheep that may explain why the dis-ease is continuing to spread outwards from heavily infected areas.

More than 60 head of cattle and 2,785 sheep at Dairy House Farm near Nantwich in Cheshire will now have to be slaughtered. The disease is thought to have been spread to the farm by sheep bought at Welshpool Market last month.

Government officials fear a further spread of the outbreak in north Wales, with infected sheep from Welshpool having been mixed with healthy animals.

The number of cases of foot-and-mouth has now risen to 213, with 131,553 animals killed and another 47,204 awaiting slaughter.

Chief Vet Jim Scudamore has appealed for any farmer who may have bought animals at Welshpool to report to local Maff officials.

The hunt is also on for an infected lorry suspected of passing the disease on to sheep at Northampton Market last month, raising the spectre of outbreaks in previously disease-free areas in the East Midlands and East Anglia.

Environment Minister Michael Meacher said on BBC Radio 4's Today show that the crisis was having "a drastic and terrible effect" on farming and the rural economy - "on hotels, bed and breakfast and tourism".

But he says "misinformation" in the press is to blame. "The access restrictions are to protect livestock ... they're not to keep people out of the country. Rural firms are struggling to cope as the public believe they can't visit the countryside, which is wrong."

-- Martin Thompson (, March 14, 2001

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