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Wednesday, 28 March, 2001, 17:02 GMT 18:02 UK
No health threat from mass burial
Heavy earth-moving equipment at work on the disused airfield in Great Orton
Sheep carcasses are being buried at two mass sites
The burial of hundreds of thousands of animal carcasses on a site near your home, farm, or business is not an experience to be relished.

Yet for those living on the edge of Carlisle or Lockerbie, it is rapidly becoming a reality.

Government experts are confident the mass burial of livestock, culled due to foot-and-mouth disease, do not pose a threat to public health or the environment.

We are confident the risks are so minimal as not to be of concern

Environment Agency spokeswoman
Despite their certainty, the UK has no experience of burying up to 500,000 animals in a single pit.

The key, says Rob Morris, policy director for the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa), is to contain the by-products from such large-scale decomposition in one area.

This means not allowing anything which could be water soluble to be carried away in ground water or any gases to escape into the atmosphere.

He conceded to BBC News Online, though, that it was "all a bit of a mystery".

Large landfill sites provided the nearest comparison, he said.

Trial pits

A mass burial site was preparing to take its first carcasses on Wednesday in Scotland's Birkshaw Forest, five miles south of Lockerbie.

Before it could be approved by Sepa, five trial pits were dug, each to 20 feet, at the corners and centre of the planned animal grave.

Aerial picture of animal carcasses
Burial of such large numbers of animals has not been seen before
There was no ground water at this depth and the deep soil appeared "heavy" rather than water-logged.

So as up to 250,000 carcasses degrade over coming months and years, experts believe there is little chance of the by-products being carried away by passing water.

The burial pits are being dug to depths of four metres then half-filled, leaving a clear two-metres of soil between the rotting animals and the surface.

This is expected to be more than sufficient to stop any scavenging birds or animals ripping into the carcasses and potentially spreading the foot-and-mouth virus.

The virus itself is believed to die with the animal.

The site will then be "mounded" to deter water soaking in, and to allow for subsidence as the carcasses decompose.

Monitoring and maintenance

That will not be the end of it.

"We will be monitoring the movement of ground water and there will be ongoing maintenance of the site," said Mr Morris.

Responsibility for ongoing monitoring and site maintenance has yet to be agreed with the Scottish Executive.

Similar considerations have been taken into account in choosing a site in Cumbria for up to 500,000 carcasses.

Army troops at MAFF offices in Carlisle
The army is a key player in organising the Cumbrian burial site
A spokeswoman for the Environment Agency in England and Wales said of the site at a disused airfield in Great Orton, Cumbria: "We are confident the risks are so minimal as not to be of concern."

This site will also be monitored for many years to ensure it remains safe.

Environmental groups contacted by BBC News Online did not raise any concerns about the mass burials.

Amongst those who commented was Andrew Smith of the RSPB wildlife charity, who said: "It shouldn't be a huge threat if it's done properly and the guidelines are adhered to."


As well as the mass burial sites, the Environment Agency has given approval for small-scale burials on more than 40 farms.

However, it has been a time-consuming process to approve each site, hence the decision to go for fewer, large-scale pits.

Burial on farms was more common during the 1967-68 outbreak of foot-and-mouth when little was understood about the potential environmental impact.

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28 Mar 01 | Scotland
Digging deep to contain disease
28 Mar 01 | Wales
Slaughter disposal row persists
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