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Thursday, 29 November, 2001, 14:41 GMT
Foot-and-mouth end in sight?
Cattle carcasses
The use of pyres needs to be reviewed
Tim Hirsch

The map of Britain tracking the progress of the foot-and-mouth disease epidemic is finally clear of the thick black lines which since February have signalled "infected areas".

At the height of the disease in the spring, these lines surrounded a vast area stretching from the Scottish Borders to the outskirts of Manchester.

Another huge swathe included much of mid-Wales and the West Midlands, and virtually the whole of Devon.

The removal of the final infected area known as the "Penrith Spur", straddling the borders of Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Durham, comes as a huge morale boost to farmers.


Livestock farmers are operating very differently from the time before foot-and-mouth first struck

But it does not mean that they are able yet to return to business as usual.

The country is still divided into three categories of counties described as high risk, at risk and disease-free.

These affect the ability of farmers to move their livestock from one area to another, and it will be the New Year at the earliest before the Northern counties which experienced the latest outbreaks will turn blue on the map and regain their disease-free status.

And all livestock farmers are operating very differently from the time before foot-and-mouth first struck in February.

Good news

Livestock markets are still banned throughout England and Wales, and every movement of animals has to go through a bureaucratic licensing system.

The good news is that farmers in areas which have remained clear from the disease are now able to export their meat within Europe, albeit under strict controls imposed by the EU.

Burning carcasses at Gretna Green
The slaughter generated thousands of carcasses
This trade is especially important to sheep and pig farmers and has resumed much earlier than many anticipated.

But it will be well into the spring before the UK will officially gain its international status as a disease-free country.

Only then will we be able to say categorically that this devastating episode for agriculture and the economy as a whole is really over.

Soul-searching

All this, of course, assumes that no new cases of the virus appear.

The government is being careful to stress that we are not yet "out of the woods", and that farmers must keep up their precautions to prevent any hidden infection from spreading.

A huge programme of blood testing has led to optimism that the disease really has gone away, but no one is taking anything for granted.

And the end of the epidemic, if that is what we are seeing, marks only the start of a long period of soul-searching about the future of farming in the wake of the foot-and-mouth disaster.

How do we prevent a similar virus from entering the country again, should we ever again use mass pyres to deal with an outbreak of this kind, and can we develop vaccines to prevent and control foot-and-mouth in future?

Even wider questions are also being asked about the system of subsidies which channels billions of pounds of taxpayers' money into the production of food, yet leaves the government with an enormous bill to bail farmers out when things go wrong.

British ministers have made it clear they want a radical shift which will reward farmers for their contribution to the environment and the countryside, but allow the free market to decide the prices they get for their produce.

All this will depend, however, on agreement within the EU on further reform of the controversial Common Agricultural Policy which governs these subsidies.

And there is still deep scepticism about whether countries such as France will agree to more than a bit of tinkering around the edges.

See also:

29 Nov 01 | England
Final area loses infected status
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