Farms shut as officials battle to contain fever

Pig farmers watch nervously for signs of the disease that has forced the slaughter of more than 10,000 animals in the past week
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An eerie silence hung over the empty Suffolk farmyard yesterday. A few days ago its entire herd - 3,500 pigs - were condemned and slaughtered. An official notice outside the front gate warned visitors to keep away.

An eerie silence hung over the empty Suffolk farmyard yesterday. A few days ago its entire herd - 3,500 pigs - were condemned and slaughtered. An official notice outside the front gate warned visitors to keep away.

Scribbled across the top of it were the words "Swine Fever".

Breeders across the three counties of Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk have closed their gates to all outsiders fearful of contamination. Notices warned strangers to keep out.

Yesterday the farmers were patrolling their yards carefully, eyeing their herds for any sign of the pink blemishes which signify the onset of the highly contagious disease.

The disease, which was detected last week in Saxmundham, Suffolk, has so far spread to five farms in the East Anglian region and the results of efforts to contain it will not be known for another two weeks.

Nigel Rowe's voice shook with emotion as he explained: "It is utterly devastating. No-one minds putting an animal down if it is suffering but the tragedy of this disease is that the healthy ones have to go as well."

Yesterday a further 1,000 animals were slaughtered at a Norfolk farm, bringing the total killed to more than 10,000 in the past week as the Ministry Of Agriculture Fisheries & Food tries to contain the outbreak.

To date, all the nursery units affected - two each in Suffolk and Norfolk and one in Essex - have been traced back to the same Norfolk breeding unit. However, it remains to be seen whether the disease - which is harmless to humans - has affected a wider circle of farms.

Until then, the East Anglian community are living "on a knife-edge", explained Mr Rowe.

Farms within a 3km area of an infected unit have been banned from moving their herds, while tight controls remain in place in a wider area.

Only a few days ago, Mr Rowe saw a fellow farmer and friend, from near Colchester, lose everything. "He has shut himself away. I would want to shut myself away. As much as everyone else wants to help, you would just want to be alone," explained the farmer, who has 1,800 animals at his nursery unit.

Not since the 1960s has the community faced such a major outbreak.

"There have been a lot of "phone calls, faxes and e-mails going between the farmers these past few days," said Mr Rowe.

Neighbours have started to fear each other, worried that the slightest contamination could devastate their own farm.

"People don't know who is being investigated. It is left to the farmers themselves to let their neighbours know," he added.

It has been a difficult few years for pig farmers but finally prices had begun to rise and most thought they could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

"It is the final straw," said Mr Rowe, adding, "we had just begun to pay back what we owed. For some people this will just be the end of the line.

"It is not just financially devastating, but the feeling of guilt towards your animals is immense."

Simon Partridge, an Essex breeder, is not a man prone to excessive emotional outbursts.

When asked how he felt about the threat, he stared stonily ahead and said: "Very worried."

Under the slaughter policy, farmers get 50 per cent of the market value for infected animals, 100 per cent for those without the disease and nothing for pigs which have already died.

But to lose his herd would not just be a financial problem for Mr Partridge but an emotional one.

"People don't appreciate how a pig farmer, who breeds animals to eat, can be emotional. But we keep these pigs because we like them."

He also fears the panic this will spread among consumers. The outbreak, farmers fear, could signal a BSE-style collapse in its £126m a year export trade.

Belgium, Spain and The Netherlands have already placed embargoes on the import of live British pigs.

Individual EU member states are able to impose interim bans until the next meeting of the European Commission's scientific veterinary committee, due within a fortnight, which will decide a long-term response to the outbreak. British officials will be travelling to Brussels over the next two weeks to discuss the problem.