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Slaughter over but heartache goes on

PUBLISHED: 23:11 01 December 2001 | UPDATED: 10:58 03 March 2010

BACK in March things looked bleak for Britain's livestock

farmers – and for everyone else who lived or worked in the

countryside.

A case of foot and mouth disease had been spotted at an Essex abattoir on February 20 – and before anyone realised that it was in the country, the disease had been spread from the Scottish borders to Devon.

BACK in March things looked bleak for Britain's livestock

farmers – and for everyone else who lived or worked in the

countryside.

A case of foot and mouth disease had been spotted at an Essex abattoir on February 20 – and before anyone realised that it was in the country, the disease had been spread from the Scottish borders to Devon.

By mid-March up to 50 new cases were being spotted each day.

Vets and officials from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food were unable to keep up with the epidemic.

And the government's main action was to close down footpaths and urge anyone who didn't have to go into the

countryside to stay away.

The National Farmers' Union seemed to take on the role of the most important pressure group in the country – and the entire emphasis seemed to be on beating the disease for the sake of Britain's

agriculture.

All this happened against the backdrop of a government preparing for a general election – preparations for the election were well advanced and it was the worst-kept secret in Westminster that the

government wanted to go to the country on county council election day, May 3.

The NFU was anxious to avoid

allowing the vaccination of livestock – that would prevent farmers from

exporting meat as Britain would lose its "disease free" status even well after the last case had been recorded.

The government was anxious not to upset farmers – they had been at the

forefront of the fuel protests six months earlier.

As election day approached, however, there was a rising clamour for a delay – and on March 22 The Star told the Prime Minister he was wrong three times.

n He was wrong to press ahead with the election while the countryside was in

crisis.

n He was wrong to oppose the

vaccination of animals.

n He was wrong to think only a small number of people – farmers – were affected by the crisis.

Within days, Mr Blair had had a

re-think on the election. He postponed the local government elections until June 7 – and the whole country knew he was also calling the general election on that day.

By the time the campaign proper got under way at the beginning of May, foot and mouth was on the decline and no longer the over-riding issue.

The number of daily cases had started to fall in April, and it was then that the government woke up to the fact that foot and mouth disease affected many more people than just British livestock farmers.

Easter – and with it the start of the

holiday season – was in the middle of April this year, and the devastating effect on the tourist industry suddenly became clear to the government.

After spending weeks backing up the NFU's message that the countryside was closed, ministers changed their tune and started urging people to spend money in rural areas. Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon was despatched to Framlingham Castle to urge people to visit attractions in East Anglia.

The Government's Countryside Agency, which co-ordinates action in rural areas, was especially concerned about the outbreak.

Ewen Cameron, chairman of the Countryside Agency, said: "Foot and mouth disease has had a profound impact on rural areas, created distress and

difficulty for many, threatening livelihoods and the very fabric of rural life.

"Government and many others acted quickly to provide some immediate relief but the full effect of the way the disease has impacted will not be known for some time. There will be more bankruptcies, fewer jobs and rural communities will suffer for years to come."

The Agency prepared a report which showed the impact on the national economy is estimated at some £4 billion, which is rather less than original forecasts.

Mr Cameron said: "Much of that national loss was due to a fall in overseas visitors that has hit the cities, but in turn the British people have switched their spending towards urban and seaside breaks, the high street and DIY. This has meant that the economic impact on the countryside is disproportionately large, and concentrated in areas where average incomes were low and business vitality already suffering.

"This crisis has underlined the

vulnerability of rural economies – how closely related agriculture is to rural tourism and tourism is to the provision of local services."

Suffolk avoided the disease itself, but there was a significant impact on some of the most popular tourist attractions in the region.

Colchester Zoo was closed for several weeks because of foot and mouth

outbreaks at nearby farms. Easton Farm Park's opening for the season was also delayed because it is part of a working farm with cattle and other livestock.

National Trust properties, including the flagship Ickworth House near Bury St Edmunds, were closed or had restricted opening for some time until it was clear that this area would remain disease-free.

The general election, when it was held, signalled a major change in the Government's battle against Foot and Mouth Disease.

The fight against the disease had been led by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food – which had been responsible for government policy towards farmers and food production since the war.

On June 7, MAFF ceased to exist. A new body, the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs took over its functions. This was a department concerned with the countryside as a whole, not just one industry – and it has prompted a total rethink of the Government's policy of tackling the disease.

By the time DEFRA came into

existence, foot and mouth disease was already in decline – and while occasional hotspots erupted, the government was

prepared to continue with its policy of slaughter and destruction of

carcasses in the battle against the disease.

Since then, however, there have been firm indications that if the country was ever faced with another major outbreak, vaccination would be used very early.

Peter Monk is Suffolk County Council executive member with responsibility for trading standards, and was at the forefront of the battle to keep the disease out. He feels the outbreak could have been

handled better.

"There were problems at government level, especially in the early day," he said.

"Essentially they were fighting it by using the same tactics that had been used in 1967 – but this year's outbreak was very different."

There was an early assumption that the disease was a purely agricultural matter – and he felt there were many questions that needed to be addressed.

"If this ever happens again, it may be necessary to move quickly to vaccinate livestock," he said.

"It became clear that the disease affected the whole rural economy. We have to look at ways of easing the problems for everyone – not just livestock farmers."

Mr Monk pointed out that agriculture represented only 2 per cent of the British economy, but that the outbreak had

devastating effects for everyone who lived in the countryside.

The replacement of MAFF by DEFRA should be positive, he felt, because it would look at problems facing the

countryside as a whole.

The NFU said its members were still coming to terms with the aftermath of the outbreak.

"There is a perception that farmers have been okay because they've got

compensation from the government – but that's only payable to those who have stock slaughtered because they've been infected with the disease," said NFU press officer Brian Finnerty.

"There have been only 11 cases in this region – but all livestock farmers have had to operate under restrictions and there is no compensation for that. Even today, you need licences to move livestock."

Mr Finnerty said farmers still did not believe vaccination was the answer because animals would still need to be destroyed later.

"The government only ever considered a small-scale fire-break vaccination programme, and that would create as many problems as it would solve," he added.

Alastair McCormack, Suffolk chairman of the NFU, said the outbreak had shown how different aspects of the rural economy depended on each other.

"There is the often-quoted figure that agriculture is just one or two per cent of the economy, but it provides the raw

material for a much larger part of the

economy," he said.

He was also dubious about the benefits of vaccination.

"People quote the example of Holland where a fire-break vaccination was successful – but it would not have worked in Britain because by the time foot and mouth had been identified, it had been spread across the country," he said.


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