Fast-spreading livestock ailment curtails all kinds of everyday activity

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The Independent Online

Racehorses stayed in their stables. Soldiers stood down from a military maneuver. Zoo-goers who hoped to see an elephant or a giraffe went away disappointed.

Racehorses stayed in their stables. Soldiers stood down from a military maneuver. Zoo-goers who hoped to see an elephant or a giraffe went away disappointed.

The ripple effects of Britain's week-old outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease spread far beyond the farm Monday, as all sorts of everyday activities were curtailed in the struggle to stem the virulent livestock ailment.

More new cases cropped up Monday, bringing to 12 the number of farms or slaughterhouses where the highly contagious infection has been found. More than 7,000 animals - mainly pigs, cows and sheep - have been slaughtered in Britain, and another 3,500 killed in continental Europe, where no cases have been found but authorities fear the disease could spread.

"This is a nightmare for the whole farming community," said farm leader Ben Gill, who met Monday with Prime Minister Tony Blair. "People are scared out of their wits."

Because horses can carry the virus - although not catch it - races were halted Monday at the Newcastle track, close to the scene of one outbreak, and a wider ban was being weighed by racing authorities. Organizers of show-jumping events were also considering cancellations.

After heavy snow fell in Scotland, officials left some rural roads unplowed for fear of stirring up dirt and manure containing the virus, which can be carried long distances by the wind.

At least three schools in virus-hit areas closed and teachers who live on farms were told to stay home. Hunts have already been suspended, and on Monday a pro-hunting group postponed a mass march - months in the planning - that had been set next month to protest a proposed ban on fox-hunting with hounds.

A major two-week military exercise to begin Friday was being hastily revised because it involved use of ground troops in an area close to an infection site, a Royal Air Force spokesman said.

Hiking groups scrapped country walks and fishing streams were closed to anglers. Safari parks, zoos and nature reserves were closing or keeping animals susceptible to the disease - including rhinos, giraffes and elephants - well away from people.

A rugby match between Wales and Ireland, set Saturday in Cardiff, Wales, may be called off because authorities are afraid Irish fans could bring the virus home with them.

Foot-and-mouth disease, which afflicts cloven-hoofed animals like sheep, cows and pigs, is extremely easy to spread. Although humans almost never catch the disease, they can carry it on boots and clothing. The virus can also be airborne, transmitted from one animal to another, or contracted through contaminated feed.

Out in the countryside, leaping flames lit the night sky over snowy fields as workers built giant bonfires of livestock carcasses. Wholesale slaughter is considered the only way to stop the epidemic, and so great is the fear of contagion that the animals' bodies are burned to ash and then buried in deep pits.

Exhausted veterinarians were working around the clock testing livestock, and distraught farmers examined their herds for the dreaded telltale blisters on the animals' feet and mouth.

"I spent every hour through the night worrying about the cattle," said farmer George Thomas, whose cows turned out to be infected. "Words cannot explain it - it's just devastating."

The European Union urged member states to trace livestock imported from Britain before a ban was imposed last week. Although no cases were found, authorities in Germany killed 350 imported sheep as a precaution, and the Netherlands slaughtered more than 3,200 sheep, cows and pigs and deer brought from Britain before the outbreak was discovered at a slaughterhouse in southern England on Feb. 19.

For beleaguered farmers, the timing could hardly be worse. Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, struck a heavy economic blow in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, and British pig farmers endured a swine-fever outbreak last summer.

The ghastly sight of pyres of burning animal carcasses brought back memories of a 1967 epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease, Britain's worst, which forced the slaughter of nearly half a million livestock. Some officials fear this outbreak could be even worse.

"It has been quite traumatic seeing ... all the dead animals," said Sue Scott, who lives only a few hundred meters (yards) from one of the carcass bonfires. "It was very sad."

Even Britain's royals felt the effects of the epidemic. A park that doubles as the home of Princess Alexandra, a first cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, was closed to the public to protect its herd of royal deer whose bloodlines go back to the time of Henry VIII. The princess has to disinfect her shoes every time she enters the estate.

Prince Charles, a gentleman farmer, broke out the disinfectant at his own farm in Highgrove, in western England.

The prince had also been set to participate for the first time in the Shrove Tuesday game at Ashbourne in central England. The centuries-old event, a sort of village-wide scrum involving scores of players and goals three miles (5km) apart across farmland, was called off, with Charles' approval.