Relief for village as first farm virus tests are negative

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The Independent Online

A mixture of relief and paranoia permeated the North Yorkshire village of Hawnby yesterday after initial tests suggested two sheep with symptoms of foot-and-mouth were not carrying the disease.

A mixture of relief and paranoia permeated the North Yorkshire village of Hawnby yesterday after initial tests suggested two sheep with symptoms of foot-and-mouth were not carrying the disease.

Final results on the sheep will not be known until Saturday, which means a ban on animal movements within a five-mile (8km) radius will stay until next week. The sheep are part a 400-strong flock reintroduced several weeks ago to an outfarm in the North York Moors National Park village where livestock had been culled during the epidemic.

Hawnby now looks safe. No initial negative foot-and-mouth results have turned positive among the thousands of animals tested at the Institute of Animal Health laboratory in Pirbright, Surrey, since the last case on 30 September. "Tests are done continuously throughout this time and the longer it goes without a positive test the better," a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) spokeswoman said.

But it is a measure of the jaundiced view of the ministry that several farmers said they believed the sores found in the mouths of two Ryedale sheep at 4pm on Tuesday had proved more useful than Princess Margaret's funeral in diverting media attention from the plight of Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Transport.

"There's certainly something unusual about it," said Robin Garbutt, the 48-year-old beef and sheep tenant farmer from St Agnes Farm in whose flock the lesions were spotted. "There's a possibility that Defra may just have started a scare here by [making the announcement] last night."

Peter Long, who rears pedigree holsteins at Broadway Farm on the river Rye, agreed. "Byers was under threat yesterday. What better than to disrupt bad news than put out more. That's what I thought as soon as it broke."

At the bar of the Hawnby Hotel, the proprietor, David Young, a Canadian, was not countenancing such malign ideas but he'd heard the dark mutterings when fear gripped the village on Tuesday night.

"It's all second-hand gossip," he said. "People still talk about how Defra officials block-booked hotel rooms in places where foot-and-mouth was found days later."

The familiar look of foot-and-mouth days was back yesterday, from the regulation Defra official posted at Mr Garbutt's gateway with five bottles of disinfectant, to veterinary officers blood-testing sheep and a phalanx of satellite television vans crowding the country lanes.

The arrival of the ministry men cheered Mr Young. Their business has gone some way to making up the £10,000 he lost since holidaymakers were asked 12 months ago to avoid the countryside.

Outside in the sleet, Geoff Todd, group secretary of the National Farmers' Union's Ryedale Group, was exhausted after a night spent correcting whispers doing the rounds from Hawnby to Thirsk, the market town 20 miles west. By 6.30pm on Tuesday, less than three hours after a vet's weekly inspection of Mr Garbutt's 400-acre farm revealed the mouth lesions, Mr Todd was getting phone calls from farmers convinced the sheep had tested positive and the flock had been culled.

The rumours showed the depth of paranoia. The sheep's feet showed no blisters, and mouth lesions can be caused by food too rough for sheep. Before last year's epidemic, vets were discovering 11 cases of lesions a year but all tests proved negative. But psychologically, the scare puts the village, one of the last in Britain to be given the all-clear, back to square one.

"This has paralysed those people who wanted to put it all behind them," Mr Todd said. "People who were just starting to get moving again, putting their lives back together."

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