Farmers' leader blames BBC for epidemic

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The Independent Online

First the foot-and-mouth outbreak was blamed on filthy farms. Next it was the nationwide trade in sheep, then Chinese takeaways, innocent ramblers and windy weather.

Yesterday the BBC's helicopters became the latest in the line-up to be blamed for spreading the virus.

The BBC's accuser was Ben Gill, the president of the National Farmers' Union (NFU). Mr Gill said journalists taking aerial picturesof stricken farms had helped to spread the virus, which can rise "like a mushroom cloud" into the air. "Of course, that was one of the problems we had with our dear friends from the BBC very early on, when they went up in helicopters over infected farms, which was exactly the wrong thing to do because it was spreading the virus," he said.

The BBC dismissed Mr Gill's claims, saying it had worked with government agencies, including the former Ministry of Agriculture (Maff), from the beginning of the outbreak. "Both Maff and the NFU have actually praised the way we have behaved," it said. "We have always stuck to the rules, both on the ground and in the air."

A spokesman for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said no-fly zones had been imposed in some foot-and-mouth cases in pigs, with which there is the strongest chance that the virus will spread through the air. Only "two or three" violations had been recorded, he said. "We are not aware of any cases of spread where helicopters have been implicated."

An NFU spokeswoman said Mr Gill had been referring to a single incident of low flying early in the outbreak.

She said: "It is entirely correct that because the virus 'plumes' out from infected animals and can be carried on the wind, a low-flying helicopter could have helped to spread it

"We had so many complaints from farmers at the time that we actually issued a press release headlined, 'NFU implores media not to add to crisis'. We also wrote to the BBC and other media organisations to ask them to be more responsible."

Mr Gill, who made his comments to the political website, also criticised the Government for its "dreadful" handling of the foot-and-mouth outbreak.