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Wednesday, 1 August, 2001, 19:05 GMT 20:05 UK
Protecting the pigs
Pigs
Foot-and-mouth spreads rapidly through pigs herds
By the BBC's Mike Mckay

Smiling broadly, Robin Mair glanced across at trading standards officer Alan David Griffin as he prepared to leave in the police patrol car.

"Just remember," he teased, "We're paying you to ride around looking at North Yorkshire's beautiful countryside! All I see is the inside of my bunker!"

For the next month or so that will continue to be Mr Mair's fate in north Yorkshire.

As the county's chief trading standards' officer, he will monitor the 15 joint police/trading standards patrols whose job is to enforce the law in the tough new 'biosecurity zone' that covers 900 square miles of the county.


It's absolutely crucial that we stop the disease spreading into the pig-producing sector

Elliot Morley
Animal health minister
This night-and-day animal watch is sponging up resources.

Volunteers have arrived from trading standards offices in Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Cornwall. Fifteen extra staff have been taken on to run the county's call centre for worried farmers.

While the government insists that foot-and-mouth in Britain has been reduced to three or four 'hot spots', the cluster of cases breaking out around Thirsk - once the home of James Herriott's practice - suggest the disease is far from beaten.

The government's animal health minister, Elliot Morley, came to inspect the launch of the new biosecurity zone and perform a careful balancing act on prospects for finally eliminating the outbreaks.

At a milk distribution depot, in Topcliffe, just outside Thirsk, the minister watched tankers going through a high-powered disinfectant spraying ramp. Clouds of jetspray palely reflected the brilliant sunshine.

Every tanker arriving at the depot must undergo this process and be hand-sprayed again before leaving the depot.

'Plume of infection'

On the thousands of miles of rural highways and byways across North Yorkshire, the biosecurity patrols will check all movements in and out of farms.

Why has this military-style operation been launched in Herriot country?

"It's absolutely crucial that we stop the disease spreading into the pig-producing sector," said Mr Morley.

Barely a stone's throw away to the east lies the most populous pig-rearing region in Britain - stretching down from the East Riding of Yorkshire to the most southerly corner of Lincolnshire.

"While sheep don't particularly spread the disease by air, pigs do," said Dr Stephen Hunter, Yorkshire operations director for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Expensive

"They create a kind of plume of infection - we call it a 'virus factory'. If the disease got into the pig population, it would be a very big outbreak - which is why we're desperate to stop it spreading beyond here."

Farmers in the biosecurity zone accept the need for drastic action - and if effective, says Defra, similar tough measures may be tried in other parts of the UK.

But pig farmers like Richard Lister, whose Boroughbridge farm lies within the security zone, thinks Defra are being inflexible on some issues.

For three decades - since the end of the last great foot-and-mouth outbreak - pig movements have operated under licence - not so sheep and cattle.


I don't think the Defra people care about our immediate worries

Richard Lister
Farmer
Moreover, the housing and care of pigs have controversially been subject to expensive and rigorous welfare standards in Britain.

"At the moment, we're becoming chock-a-bloc with pigs on our breeding grounds because we're all having to wait for the results of a mass blood-testing on sheep in the county," said Mr Lister.

"But given the normal standards of hygiene in our industry, local vets could have assessed our stocks and issued licenses for movement.

"But I don't think the Defra people care about our immediate worries."

Mr Lister said his farm was becoming a "shanty town" of accommodation for more and more pigs - normally 1,000 a week are born on two sites.

"We've got weaners in pens of straw bales, pigs with sun burn and lots of tail-biting. Plus they've got to be fed and watered while the numbers keep growing."

Like all North Yorkshire's livestock farmers he is awaiting the outcome of blood testing of 50,000 sheep.

If they are found to have anti-bodies, it will confirm the worst fears of a "bush fire" spread of the disease across the Pennines.



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