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Thursday, 2 August, 2001, 16:20 GMT 17:20 UK
Mass slaughter of lambs confirmed
Lambs in a field
The lambs can neither be exported nor sold in Britain
The government has announced a "one-off" purchase and slaughter of approximately 1.5 million lambs with no overseas market because of foot-and-mouth.

Food minister Lord Whitty made the announcement about "light" lambs at a crisis conference at the University of Warwick.

Hill farmers gathered at the National Farmers' Union meeting to hear the fate of the animals, which would normally be exported but for foot-and-mouth restrictions stopping overseas trade.

Disease statistics
Total confirmed cases: 1,921
Premises with animals slaughtered or due to be slaughtered: 8,949
Animals slaughtered: 3,630,000
New cases on Wednesday: 7

But Lord Whitty warned that the process would be a "one-off" to avoid major welfare problems building up in the autumn.

He said this would be the last time the taxpayer would pay costs that in other sectors would be borne by the industry and its insurers.

The debate continues on whether the vaccination of animals against the disease should be introduced for the first time in the UK, despite opposition from the National Farmers' Union (NFU).

Export ban

Nearly four million sheep have been culled since the start of the foot-and-mouth crisis in February - more than a tenth of the UK flock.

Farmers have a surplus of lambs because of the export ban.

Smaller lambs or light lambs reared on the hills of Cumbria, Wales and Devon are popular in Europe but not Britain.

Blood sample being taken from sheep
More than 5,000 Brecon Beacons sheep were culled
With the overseas markets blocked off, UK farmers are facing mounting costs.

Before the meeting, claims that a vaccination contingency plan had been approved for North Yorkshire were dismissed by NFU President Ben Gill.

The Times newspaper had said ministers had agreed a "firebreak" vaccination plan around North Yorkshire, if cases there persist and appear to be spreading to the main pig production area in East Yorkshire.

But Mr Gill said: "Vaccination doesn't help kill the disease".

Public pressure

Lord Whitty said there was no conflict with the farmers' unions on this issue and government policy was unchanged.

While vaccination was an option he said advice was that it would not help at the moment.

However government vet Gareth Davies has warned that public pressure for vaccination was likely to increase.

Elliott Morley watches foot-and-mouth biosecurity measures in North Yorkshire
Elliott Morley watches new biosecurity measures in Yorkshire
He told the BBC Radio 4's Farming Today: "I think the pressure will come from the welfare groups and the taxpayers.

"The taxpayers are going to ask why they have to pay all this money out for something that is a problem within the industry."

And he argued that some other European countries would have chosen a vaccination policy if they were in the UK's position.

"We have got some sort of mystical regard for the slaughter policy and we are not prepared to think about doing something we have not done before".

He said that vets had been ready to vaccinate but the government had been hindered by farmer opposition.

'State of confusion'

On Thursday shadow agriculture minister Tim Yeo called for the government's crisis management committee to be reconvened immediately.

More than 80,000 sheep in Cumbria are undergoing blood tests to check for signs of the disease.

We have got some sort of mystical regard for the slaughter policy

Government vet Gareth Davies
And more than 5,000 sheep on the Brecon Beacons have been culled amid fears the disease could affect all 10,000 animals which roam the Welsh mountain range.

On Wednesday Devon was announced free of foot-and-mouth by Lord Whitty, along with Cornwall and Somerset.

Rural affairs minister Alun Michael was in the Lake District on Thursday to highlight the fact that 90% of footpaths countrywide have now reopened.

The BBC's Nicola Carslaw
"The perception is supermarkets are profiteering"
Agricultural Minister Lord Whitty
"We will put all efforts into stamping out the disease"
NFU president, Ben Gill
"We want to get back to the marketplace"
See also:

29 Mar 01 | Sci/Tech
Q&A: The vaccination issue
02 Aug 01 | UK Politics
Youth hostels face closure
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