Farmers 'to blame for foot and mouth'

Officials cite breaches in 'biosafety' rules
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The Independent Online

Farmers are responsible for the devastating new outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the Yorkshire Dales, according to senior government sources.

Farmers are responsible for the devastating new outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the Yorkshire Dales, according to senior government sources.

The accusation, reflecting increasing official anger at the conduct of the farming community during the three-month epidemic, is bound to re-ignite furious controversy and challenges the conventional wisdom that farmers are the victims of the epidemic.

On this bank holiday weekend, 70 per cent of the country's footpaths are still closed. But the Government accepts that there is no evidence that a single case of the disease has been caused by walkers.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food believes the Settle outbreak was caused by breaches in the strict "biosafety" regulations ­ including disinfecting vehicles and footwear ­ placed on farms to stop the disease spreading. Senior sources have told the Independent on Sunday that the virus was probably spread by people or vehicles moving from an infected farm to the area.

The anger at farmers reaches up to the Prime Minister, who is said to be "fed up" with them. Maff sources say that they have been responsible for much of the spread of the disease and that some have profiteered from it.

They cite widespread illegal movements of animals and believe that some farmers have deliberately infected their herds to gain compensation. They add that compensation schemes have been abused by farmers and that landowners have charged excessive prices for straw for funeral pyres.

"A lot of people have been making a lot of money out of foot and mouth despite all the weeping and wailing,'' said one senior source. "There will be an enquiry at the end of all this, and it will all come out.''

Maff officials and the National Farmers' Union agree that the new outbreak will not have been caused by the virus spreading on the wind. Both believe that the likeliest cause is a breach of biosecurity. "The farmers say that no one else understands the countryside. But they do not clean the shit off their boots and then wonder why they get an epidemic,'' said a senior Maff official last week.

This is adding to the Government's frustration that farmers are continuing to obstruct the opening of rights of way even in areas far from the nearest outbreak, despite pressure from the Prime Minister and ministers for the countryside for them to be opened up.

"There is no evidence that the public has been responsible for one outbreak. But there is a lot of evidence that it is being spread by farmers,'' said one senior government source.

The ministry does not believe the Settle outbreak has been caused by illegal movement of animals but says that these have been "widespread'' elsewhere during the crisis. It also privately believes that some farmers have infected their animals deliberately to get compensation, though it admits that it cannot prove this.

Senior government sources said that some farmers had:

* "Abused'' a compensation scheme set up for animals that had to be slaughtered, typically because they ran out of grazing and could not be moved. Unaffected animals had been sent for slaughter because the farmers could get more money for them in this way than they would fetch on the open market.

* "Jacked up'' compensation levels for their herds. When valuations were holding up the slaughtering early in the crisis, a generous flat rate was introduced. But farmers had taken this as a minimum rate and continued to press for more money.

* Charged "over the odds'' for straw for pyres and for the land on which they were sited.

Yesterday Tim Bennett, the deputy president of the NFU, said that it was difficult to enforce biosecurity, particularly when people have been confined to their farms for three months. He said that there was no evidence that farmers deliberately infected their animals or that they had abused the compensation scheme, though he said it would be understandable if animals were sent to slaughter rather than sold when the markets were not operating properly.

He added that the price of straw had risen because of a shortage caused partly by the need to feed it to animals who could not be put into the fields, and that compensation rose because the more animals that were killed the more expensive they would be to replace.

He said he understood the Government getting "fed up" with the crisis, but "being irritated'' would not solve it.