Army prepares killing fields

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Military logistics experts yesterday began to put in place plans for speeding up the mass cull of hundreds of thousands of farm animals across Britain.

Military logistics experts yesterday began to put in place plans for speeding up the mass cull of hundreds of thousands of farm animals across Britain.

In Cumbria, the county worst hit by the foot and mouth epidemic, disused airstrips were being earmarked for the slaughter of up to 300,000 animals. They will be transported in specially designed vehicles to the new killing fields. Government officials are also scouring the countryside for suitable landfill sites in which to burn or bury livestock.

The stepping up of Army involvement comes in the wake of chief vet Jim Scudamore's decision yesterday to give the go-ahead to a nationwide cull of all livestock on land neighbouring foot and mouth infected farms. The new policy will work alongside the existing, but controversial, 3km cull zones that operate around the most seriously infected areas in Cumbria and southern Scotland.

Brigadier Malcolm Wood, of the 101 Logistic Brigade, has been put in charge of a military logistics team based in London inside the disease control centre in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff). He said about 200 military personnel were now involved in co-ordinating a more efficient killing of livestock.

Nick Brown, the agriculture minister, said yesterday the average time from diagnosis of foot and mouth to slaughter was down to 14 hours although he admitted it was still taking longer in the worst affected areas.

The increasing use of soldiers to tackle the crisis comes amid criticism from Conservatives and others that the Government underestimated the scale of the disaster. William Hague called for a "crisis cabinet" yesterday.

By last night, 524 confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease had been reported in the UK, including nine new cases yesterday. Outbreaks have also been confirmed in Republic of Ireland, Holland and France. To date, more than 320,000 animals have been slaughtered in the UK with another 200,000 awaiting slaughter, most of those in Cumbria.

Out of the 525,000 animals so far condemned, 251,000 are in Cumbria, 68,000 in Dumfries and Galloway, 44,000 in Devon and 161,000 elsewhere in the UK. The estimated compensation bill for farmers has now reached £102.6m.

The mandatory slaughter of all animals within 3km of an outbreak was criticised by a Cumbrian vet, who said farmers would now be discouraged from reporting potential foot and mouth cases because it would lead to neighbouring farms being wiped out as well.

"Farmers don't want to take neighbours down with them," said David Black, a vet in Dalston, near Carlisle. He said he had already noticed an increasing military presence in the area but said the introduction of logistics experts had come three weeks too late. "We have been far too complacent. They didn't treat this virus with the respect it deserved early on," said Mr Black. "The whole Ministry of Agriculture machine took too long to kick in."

The National Farmers' Union warned a 3km zone was entirely arbitrary and risked alienating farmers. The union's president Ben Gill said: "There is nothing magical about the 3km distance - any additional culling must be based on the realities of the region rather than a pre-determined figure."

Meanwhile the spectre of widespread meat shortages has been raised by a worst-case prediction by the Government's chief scientific adviser that more than 50 per cent of livestock could be lost.

John Ross, a Scottish sheep farmer and member of the 15-strong Meat and Livestock Commission, said yesterday: "If the speculation proves to be right then there would be a serious disruption to supplies."

The commission, a Government quango which represents the interests of the meat industry, will meet this week to discuss the "supply implications".