'Catastrophe' in Britain's biggest livestock region

The South-west
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Farming officials in the South-west had a single word to describe the news that foot-and-mouth disease had spread to Britain's biggest livestock region: "Catastrophe".

Farming officials in the South-west had a single word to describe the news that foot-and-mouth disease had spread to Britain's biggest livestock region: "Catastrophe".

Burdon Farm, the holding in mid-Devon where the illness was spotted in 30 cattle on Saturday, lies in an area that provides 20 per cent of Britain's beef and lamb - three times that of neighbouring Wales.

The dense concentration of cattle and sheep, along with significant pork and poultry production, means the disease could already have spread from Burdon Farm, near Highampton, to neighbouring farms.

Within the five-mile exclusion zone set up yesterday around Burdon Farm, owned by the sheep- and beef-dealer Willie Cleave, lies Hatherleigh, one of the nation's biggest livestock markets and slaughterhouses. In a regional industry producing around 220,000 tons of meat a year, worth an estimated £800m, the potential for the foot-and-mouth virus to wreak havoc is enormous.

Ian Johnson, a spokesman for the National Farmers' Union in the region, said: "This is nothing other than a catastrophe - it is the worst possible news for an area such as ours.

"There are millions of animals in the South-west with hundreds, if not thousands of movements every week. The illness may have been spreading before the transportation ban on Friday.

"All we can do now is sit tight and be very, very vigilant. I would like to hope that it won't spread from Highampton but it is only a very slim chance. We must prepare ourselves for the worst."

The six counties in the region - Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire - are no strangers to farming disaster. They were badly hit by the BSE epidemic.

With around one in five of the country's suckler or beef producing herds based in the region, many farmers were just beginning to recover from the pain of slaughtering herds and starting anew. Recent production figures for the area show it was producing as much beef, lamb and pork as Scotland from around 20,000 farms and producers.

Peter Reynolds, the regional representative for the Meat and Livestock Commission, said: "Livestock is a major business here, therefore the effects of a foot-and-mouth outbreak are disproportionately large.

"During the last outbreak in the 1960s they managed to keep it out of Devon and Cornwall. Unfortunately this has not been the case this time. We must wait with trepidation to see how bad it is."

The foot-and-mouth outbreak comes as farmers in Devon were grappling with a 100 per cent rise in bovine tuberculosis since 1997. Many farms in the county had already been quarantined as part of a nationwide cull of 30,000 cattle to quell the disease before yesterday's news that foot-and-mouth had also arrived.

David Hill, the chairman of the NFU's Devon branch, whose 400-strong herd is based on his farm just outside the Burdon Farm exclusion zone, said the news had left a sense of impending doom.

"At times like this, you even look up and see flocks of starlings and wonder where they have come from. This is a time of fear and trembling."