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Thursday, 30 August, 2001, 10:48 GMT 11:48 UK
Northumberland: A farmer's view
Slaughtered sheep in Catton are put in the back of a truck
Thousands of animals have been killed in the county
"It's like a game of snakes and ladders. You're nearly at the home square and then you hit a big snake and you're right back at the beginning again."

That is how Northumberland farmer George Meek summed up the "serious blow" of the return of foot-and-mouth in Northumberland.

"We'd been coming up for three months without a case," he told BBC News Online.

"Blood sampling was going very, very fast, and we were becoming - not confident exactly - but feeling sure it was going well, that we'd be a provisionally free area within a month.

Dead cattle are sprayed with disinfectant in Bishopside farm, Allendale
The infected farms lost their cattle in a swift cull to stamp out the cluster
"Now we reckon it's going to be another three or four months at least - we probably won't get it before Christmas."

And that, says Mr Meek, means farmers will be hampered by severe restrictions on their business during the usually-busy harvest period.

Mr Meek himself farms at Porteland, which is out of the strict "blue box" exclusion zone around Allendale, where the 13 cases sprung up in six days from 23 August.

"But it affects a lot of us," he said. "Farmers would usually be buying from areas they can't get to."

He feels desperately sorry for his colleagues within the blue box, who will be unable to take their stock to the autumn markets.

"They have a real problem come mid-October, of what to do with all the animals in that valley. There's real financial implications," he said.

"They'll have all those extra feed bills and that's money you don't get back.

Road Closed signs into Catton and Allendale
Farmers are unable to access their usual trading partners
"And the ones I feel really sorry for are the marginal hill farmers who won't be able to find buyers for their sheep."

He said that farmers had been "dumbfounded" by the news on 23 August that the disease had been confirmed at Ninebanks farm in Hexham.

They had been "still reeling" from previous measures to controls the disease, he said.

"I was next door to the second case in Northumberland, first time round. We had no movements for three months. It's terrible to live with.

"The last six months have been very stressful. We've not been mixing with other farmers.

"It's a quiet, remote valley here and a long way from anywhere. Life can become very, very lonely for everyone."

But Mr Meek remained positive that the cluster was under control, after no new cases were reported on Wednesday 29 August.

"They moved very, very fast and caught it - or hopefully - and have got it under control now," he said.

He was fairly confident that most farmers in the area would be able to ride out the latest crisis.

"I hope so," he said. "Farming's had two or three very difficult years but yes, I hope so."



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