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Wednesday, 27 February, 2002, 12:36 GMT
Sentinels on guard against disease
sentinel sheep North Yorkshire
Sentinel sheep raised the alert in North Yorkshire
The sheep at the centre of the latest foot-and-mouth scare are on the front line in the war on the disease.

They are sentinels, brought in to test if land is safe before it is restocked.

Like the canaries who went down mineshafts to test for gas, sentinel animals warn if all is not well before the farmer risks thousands of pounds of new animals.

Re-stocking FMD farms
Sentinel animals introduced
Checked by vet once a week
Blood tests taken after four weeks
All clear given, restrictions lifted

The rules governing the re-introduction of animals to farms affected by a foot-and-mouth cull were laid down by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs before last year's foot-and-mouth outbreak.

Rural Affairs Secretary Margaret Beckett says the rules are there because the disease is "difficult to eradicate".

"When a farm has lost its animals and then begins to restock, there is a procedure that we follow precisely so that we can see if there is a danger of any remaining virus and remaining risk of the disease," she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

The number of sentinel animals brought on to the farm is a percentage of the size of the eventual flock.

Mount Pleasant Farm
Defra official disinfects Mount Pleasant Farm

In the case of the Mount Pleasant Farm near Thirsk in North Yorkshire, the farmer hopes to restock with 2,000 sheep, so there are 400 sentinels.

At a smaller farm in Cumbria which was tested last week for the disease, there are 125 sentinel sheep.

The sheep are tested by a vet for the disease every week for four weeks.

If they are clear of disease, restrictions are lifted and the farmer can introduce the full flock or herd.

It was during one of these weekly tests that the vet in North Yorkshire found there was something wrong and decided he could not rule out foot-and-mouth.

See also:

05 Mar 01 | UK
Foot-and-mouth factfile
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