Fourth foot-and-mouth case confirmed as country areas declared 'out of bounds'

Livestock on farm in Tyne and Wear infected with disease
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The Independent Online

Agriculture bosses today confirmed that livestock on a farm in Tyne and Wear have devastating foot-and-mouth disease.

Agriculture bosses today confirmed that livestock on a farm in Tyne and Wear have devastating foot-and-mouth disease.

They also say they are closing in on the source of the outbreak, which has paralysed British farming.

The latest confirmation, at a farm in Heddon-on-the Wall, brings to four the number of cases of the disease.

Yesterday, farmland was put out of bounds to walkers and fox-hunting was suspended as fears intensified that the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease was set to turn into a national epidemic.

A third case was confirmed at Great Warley, Essex, barely a mile from the site of the first reported case.

The extent of the crisis was underlined as the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food issued a "major alert to anyone who has contact with the countryside". Investigations continued at the farm and abattoir at Brentwood, Essex, where the disease was first found, and several farms remained sealed off. One Welsh abattoir sent staff home as meat and milk producers warned of a slump in prices.

Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, also called the outbreak "the very last thing" that farmers needed, and added: "They have faced a really tough time through the collapse of world prices, through the aftermath of BSE, the strength of the pound. It's been a very, very tough time indeed." Ministers are expected to find out within a week whether the highly infectious disease has spread after tests are completed.

Hunters, horse-racing organisers, ramblers and even postal workers were put on alert and the organisers of next month's planned national march by the Countryside Alliance warned that it might have to be called off because of the danger of spreading infection. A Maff spokesman said: "People should not go walking in areas where there are livestock and should avoid all contact with livestock farms.

"Farmers should also get their deliveries left at the farm gate. All unnecessary visits on to farmland should be avoided."

Farmers were also advised to install troughs filled with disinfectant at the entrances to farms for essential visitors to clean their boots when entering and leaving their land.

"We cannot stress these measures enough. Even postal deliveries could pose a risk, particularly as they travel between farms. Dogs should also be kept under control away from all livestock and horse riders should think carefully about how they can go," he said.

"We are issuing a major alert to anyone who has contact with the countryside. People should think of the ways they can minimise the way this disease may be spread. They should also consider if journeys such as weekend walks in the countryside are absolutely necessary."

The Ramblers' Association backed calls for the public to keep clear of farmland. Nick Barrett, the association's chief executive, said: "It is imperative that all members of the public take precautions to avoid the spread of this terrible disease. We trust that everyone will act responsibly until the disease has been contained."

Hunting groups imposed a voluntary seven-day ban, while ramblers were asked to avoid routes that might bring them into contact with livestock.

A point-to-point race planned for this Sunday at High Easter, 20 miles from the infected Essex abattoir, was cancelled. With other events facing cancellation if the situation deteriorates, the Jockey Club said it was reviewing the situation constantly.

The Countryside Alliance said its march, expected to attract 500,000 farmers, landowners, hunt supporters and rural campaigners on 18 March, was also being reviewed.

Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture, warned that the cost to British farming could increase beyond the estimated £8m-a-week value of lost exports. He said: "If this gets a grip and we are unable to control it, the figure will be much larger."

The European Commission said it would not hesitate to extend the ban on Britain's exports of live animals, meat and dairy products beyond the current deadline of 1 March if the disease had not been completely eliminated.

Maff officials confirmed yesterday that the emergency exclusion zone around the Cheale Meats abattoir and farm complex, in Little Warley, Essex, had been doubled to 10 miles. But an abattoir near Guildford was given the all-clear after reporting a suspected case.

Meanwhile efforts continued to find the source of the infection, amid warnings that modern free-trade agreements had increased the risk to British livestock farmers.