Reporter 463, 12 March 2001

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by Dr Mike Wilkinson, Senior Lecturer in Animal Science at the University of Leeds.

There is no doubt at all in my mind, as I write this on the evening of Tuesday 27 February 2001, that the Foot and Mouth epidemic is an unprovoked attack of potential meltdown proportions, which could result in the destruction of our livestock industry.

Historically, we have maintained, for better or worse, a policy of eradication by slaughter rather than one of incomplete protection by vaccination against the disease. As a result, our livestock have no immunity against the virus which spreads readily and which appears to survive cold weather well.

As new infections of the extremely virulent O strain of the Foot and Mouth virus are confirmed daily, it is clear already that there is no pattern to the outbreak - the infection is everywhere, from Northumberland to Devon, from Essex to Angelsey. This is the difference between the present outbreak and the one in 1967. Why? Because this time animals are being transported vast distances around our country to be marketed and slaughtered.

I remember the 1967 outbreak clearly because I was involved in it as a research student in Northumberland. The areas of infection were clearly defined - mainly in Cheshire but also in the North East and in a few other areas. As the number of cases around our farm increased, I was driven almost to despair as I struggled to cope with the prospect that my research would be ruined if my animals, on which the research for my PhD degree depended, had to be shot and burnt.

The crucial difference between this outbreak and the 1967 one is that many small local abattoirs have been forced to close by a combination of falling margins and over-restrictive EU bureaucracy. I understand some supermarkets specify which abattoir the producer must use, which may not be the one nearest to the farm. Thus animals are having to be transported ever-greater distances, either because there is no abattoir locally, or because the buyer demands that a particular abattoir is used which is many miles further away than the local one. I have been told of lambs being sent from Aberdeen to slaughter at an abattoir near Exeter. Now, this is a distance of almost 1000 kilometres - equal to the distance from London to Berlin, Bordeaux or Geneva. The bad animal welfare of this outrageous practice is obvious.

Our first and most important response to the F & M disaster must be to restrict our movements around the countryside to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. Secondly, we can offer our sympathy to livestock farmers and their relatives by offering any practical help we can - even to the extent of raising cash or helping to find jobs for those faced with bankruptcy. Thirdly, we must campaign as vigorously as we are able for the return of the local abattoir. Fourthly, in the longer term we must demand, as consumers, to be supplied with locally-produced meat and animal food products.

The meltdown scenario is that the virus infects our wild mammals so that they, together with our horses, have to be killed. We must face the prospect that our companion animals and those we enjoy to see in our countryside - both wild and domesticated - may well disappear for a while. The only good news is that eventually the epidemic will be brought under control and that life will return to normal for some, if not all our livestock farmers. My hope is that the end of this epidemic will come sooner rather than later and that the meltdown scenario does not happen.

J M WILKINSON 27 February 2001

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