Belgians revolt as Europe's great slaughter starts

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Europe began the wholesale slaughter of thousands of animals imported from Britain yesterday as governments moved to prevent foot-and-mouth disease gaining a grip on the continent.

Europe began the wholesale slaughter of thousands of animals imported from Britain yesterday as governments moved to prevent foot-and-mouth disease gaining a grip on the continent.

The Netherlands swiftly destroyed 4,300 animals, Germany culled 350 and the French authorities placed 47,000 animals imported from the UK in quarantine.

In an atmosphere of mounting alarm, Belgian farmers clashed with riot police in Brussels and the Irish Farmers' Association demanded a ban on all animal movements - including racehorses - to Britain and for the thorough disinfection of "every foot and tyre" entering Ireland from the UK.

Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture, was due in Brussels last night for a meeting of EU farm ministers which was picketed by Belgian farmers angered by the new threat to their livelihoods. They were also demanding more compensation for the effects of BSE.

The foot-and-mouth outbreak has added to their problems, with Belgian livestock markets banned as a precaution. France, Germany and the Netherlands have all been warned that they have imported potentially infected animals from a Devon farm which has been hit by the outbreak.

As last night's meeting in Brussels began, Finland's agriculture minister, Kalevi Hemilae, described the developments in Britain as "very serious", saying it was "worrying that it has spread widely and to farms that do business with other European countries".

With cattle exports from Britain restricted by BSE regulations and pig sales confined to high-value, well-monitored sales, European farmers were hoping that sheep - which are exported in large numbers - had not been infected.

The spread of the disease at the weekend to a Devon sheep farm which exports to Europe has provoked rapid reaction. The Dutch authorities have already slaughtered large numbers of livestock in an operation involving at least 18 farms. Benno Bruggink, a spokesman for the Dutch agriculture ministry, said "concern is quite high in the Netherlands because it is such a dangerous disease", and warned that some animals have already been re-exported to third countries, including France. "In deer and sheep, the disease is harder to detect. That is why we have not taken any risks, and have gone ahead with the slaughter," he said.

His concern was mirrored in Germany, where checks were imposed at airports and the German agriculture minister, Renate Künast, demanded an extension of the EU-wide ban on British livestock, meat and dairy products. Regional governments in Germany were preparing a census of animals brought from Britain. Those already discovered were placed under quarantine and tested for the virus. Under a package of emergency measures adopted yesterday, livestock markets across Germany will be shut from tomorrow for at least a week.

Some of the sheep incinerated had come from one of the British farms touched by the epidemic, said Bärbel Höhn, the environment minister of North Rhine-Westphalia. Ms Höhn was the loudest advocate in Germany of a ban on British imports early in the BSE crisis.

In France, the authorities have tracked down about 47,000 animals imported from the UK in the past 30 days - many of them sheep brought into the country before a Muslim festival. The animals are being monitored but no decision has yet been taken on their fate.

Speaking in Brussels, Tom Parlon, president of the Irish Farmers' Association, said: "So far we feel there has been a very substantial effort made in the UK. But we feel that because of the seriousness of the situation, and the fact that it appears not to be under control, we need to intensify our efforts at the ports and every foot entering Ireland must be fully disinfected."

The European Commission's health and consumer spokeswoman, Beate Gminder, said that Brussels is "satisfied with measures taken" by British authorities to stamp out the disease, but she added: "It's important that the member states concerned, including France, should undertake tracing of all animals involved in transport from the UK in the last three weeks."

Even before the latest blow, governments were grappling with the task of destroying cattle in the wake of the BSE crisis. The government in Berlin was just in the process of destroying 400,000 heads of cattle to prop up the devastated beef market as news came of the foot-and-mouth outbreak.

The German farm industry has also been embroiled in recent weeks in a scandal over illicit drugs in pig feed. After renouncing beef and sausages potentially containing beef, many Germans then decided to give up pork. Sales of lamb and even horse meat soared, but now fears about disease-ridden sheep could provoke another adjustment in the national diet.