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Thursday, 22 March, 2001, 18:42 GMT
Disease hits Ireland
Vet on infected Irish farm
Vet on infected farm in County Louth.
The Irish Republic today confirmed that a farm in County Louth, four miles from the border with the North, has foot and mouth disease.

For three weeks, the authorities have been hoping that strict controls and a complete close-down of countryside activities would protect them.

The Irish Parliament, the Dail, suspended its sitting so that the Agriculture Minister, Joe Walsh, could make a full statement.

Mr Walsh promised aggressive strategic slaughter of flocks in the region and a temporary suspension of all exports.
Irish Agriculture Minister, Joe Walsh
Joe Walsh, the Irish Agriculture Minister.

He told the Irish parliament "I am confident that we will get restrictions confined to the zone in Louth. We then have the difficulty, of course, in convincing the markets that the produce from Ireland is safe."

For the farming community in the border area today's news brought to an end a long period of waiting - and hoping. Liam Woods is a farmer from Castle Town Curley in County Louth. He has 800 sheep on the hills adjoining one of the affected farms, and he knows they are doomed.

As the Republic of Ireland confronts the unwelcome news from County Louth, Britain's outbreak also seems to have reached a turning-point.

Yesterday, one of the Government's main advisers, Professor Roy Anderson from Imperial College, delivered the results of an epidemiological study carried out for the Ministry of Agriculture.

Everyone is in agreement - this epidemic is not under control at this current point in time

Professor Roy Anderson

The picture he painted was intensely gloomy. He declared categorically that the outbreak was NOT in control. In fact, it might not reach its peak for several weeks and it could be five months until foot and mouth is eradicated...

Thousands of farms could eventually be infected. And consequently, the crisis would be in full flow on May 3rd, the date of the local - and probably - general elections.

So if this is a turning point, it seems a good moment to review the current handling of the crisis - on which the political consensus has started to crumble.

Professor Anderson drew attention to the numbers of vets available to deal with inspections, controls, transport, slaughter and disposal of livestock.

So far 1100 vets are involved, and 40 more from the private sector have now volunteered to help. But everyone agrees it's not enough.

David Tyson is President of the British Veterinary Association. He points out that the Ministry itself has a staff of only 220 working vets - compared to several thousand in a country like Spain.

And that compared to 1967 - the date of the last major outbreak - there has been a complete change in the structure of the profession. The numbers of men and women working on farms has fallen by 85%.
The army and MAFF vets are working together.
The army have been called in to help MAFF vets with the cull.

Then there's the question of other available resources. The Conservatives have made great play of the fact that deployment of troops has been delayed so long, and is still at such a low level.

Only now are the first soldiers appearing on the ground. Brigadier Sebastian Roberts, the Army's director of the communications, told me that they were there to "provide assistance in the coordination in the activity of the experts in command control and communication"

The next question concerns the arrangements for culling animals in and around infected farms.

There have been countless stories of delays, both before and after animals are slaughtered. Our reporter Andrew Bomford is in Cumbria spoke this morning to Bob Eite, one of the representatives there for the National Farmers Union. Mr Eite told him about the experience of one farmer near Longtown.

Aside from the difficulties of dealing with and containing the outbreak, the Government is also faced with the problem of reviving a moribund tourist industry.

The cost to the nation from a perception that the countryside is shut is potentially much higher that the cost to farming. .
Michael Meacher, Environment Minister
Environment Minister, Michael Meacher.

Full page advertisements have been taken out in the newspapers today -- jointly by a variety of agencies and Government departments -- stressing that the countryside was NOT closed down.

The Environment minister, Michael Meacher, is the man in charge of the rural task force. On a visit to the south west this morning he was asked whether the renewed publicity drive would do the trick

He told reporters that he hoped the Government's policy was clear and simple. He said " It says very clearly - the Governments priority is containment and eradication of the disease. But you can still safely go into the countryside for all sorts of things"

But will the message be sharp enough? We spoke to Ewan Cameron, the chairman of the Countryside Agency, and he told us he was he worried that councils could be turning people off the countryside for fear of being held responsible for the disease spreading.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Audio
Irish Agriculture Ministers Statement on epidemic
Audio
Irish farmer on outbreak in Republic
Audio
Andrew Bomford speaks to Cumbrian farmer
Audio
Countryside Agency interview

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