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Tuesday, 22 January, 2002, 00:24 GMT
'Secrecy' condemned in farm virus report
Devon sale ring
Devon farmers had their own public inquiry
Devon's inquiry into the handling of foot-and-mouth disease concludes that a "culture of secrecy" made the disaster worse.

The 100-page report of the inquiry launched on 22 August by Devon County Council calls the thousands of farmers in the county who have not received compensation "forgotten victims in the tragedy".

The "Crisis and Opportunity" report - being released on Tuesday - makes a total of 51 findings.

It also criticises the construction of the 5.6m carcass disposal site at Ash Moor which was never used, and a botched cull which caused 19 frightened cows to escape into the village of Knowstone.

Devon cattle
Money raised by selling the report goes to farmers

The report's author and independent inquiry chairman Professor Ian Mercer CBE said: "The inquiry heard that a culture of secrecy was perceived within the Ministry of Agriculture, Farms and Fisheries, public communication was poor to non-existent, and this to led to an atmosphere of suspicion, confusion, changing advice and inconsistencies.

"It is vital that timely and accurate information is provided... and all information must be clear, open and honest, and political considerations should be set aside."

His report recommends that in future operations to combat the disease come under the control of the military from the start.

Vaccination plan

The inquiry also heard that the Department for Environment Farming, and Rural Affairs (Defra) had plans to use vaccinations to control the outbreak which were not used, because it was too late by the time the disease was identified.

The plans were also described as inadequate and Defra admits the scale of the outbreak exceeded the resources available to deal with it effectively.

Commenting on the 4,500 Devon farmers who were subject to restrictions, Brian Warren, Devon supervisor for Farm Crisis Network and who farms near Copplestone, Devon, said: "They begin to feel isolated and that leads to depression and the risk of suicide."

Professor Mercer, 68, is very critical of the failure to compensate these "forgotten" farmers, who were not allowed to move or sell their livestock even though they were not suffering from the disease.

Defra has expressed "regret" for the controversial cull of pedigree cattle in the village of Knowstone near South Molton, and the distress caused to the family neighbouring the giant unused Ash Moor disposal site in North Devon.

Official regret

The inquiry heard that cattle at Knowstone suspected of having the virus spent days roaming around the Devon village after they bolted when the cull was bungled.

New instructions have been issued to ensure that sufficiently skilled marksmen are selected in future.

The inquiry asked Defra a number of detailed questions about the Ash Moor mass burial site, built alongside a family who were given less than 24 hours notice of work beginning, and then advised to move.

Dartmoor sign
Devon was badly hit by the epidemic

The inquiry was told in response: "Although it would not be appropriate to comment on an individual case, Defra regrets any distress that may have been caused to the family concerned."

About 380 people and organisations, from Devon and beyond, submitted evidence to the inquiry during its investigations in the late summer and autumn of 2001.

Other recommendations about how the Government could plan to manage longstanding problems specific to countryside communities are also made.

High house prices, a lack of farm labour, and inadequate training are all mentioned.

In response to questions about the harmful effects that burning pyres had on Devon's image for tourists, Defra said that disposal policy in future outbreaks will be considered by the national inquiries, whose findings will need to be carefully studied.

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