'Go away. This evil has come to us from your whore of an England, once again'

French outbreak
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The Independent Online

Having a British accent was not the best visiting card yesterday in Mayenne.

Having a British accent was not the best visiting card yesterday in Mayenne.

"Go away. This evil has come to us from your whore of an England, once again. I have nothing to say to you." He was a young farmer, in his thirties, dressed in jeans and a yellow baseball cap.

He turned on his heel and walked back into his farmyard.

Northern Mayenne - apicture-book land of fields, hills, woods and clumps of wild primroses in the hedgerows - was in a state of shock yesterday. The first case of foot-and-mouth to reach the Continent since the British epidemic began three weeks ago, and the first case of any kind in France for 20 years, was confirmed in the small village of La Baroche-Gondouin, on the border of Mayenne and lower Normandy.

The 113 dairy cows in the herd of Francis Leroyer - a herd of prime Holsteins built up painstakingly over 30 years - were piled into a pit in the afternoon and set alight, replicating the grim bonfires seen all over Britain in the past 20 days.

There could be no doubt where the "evil" had come from. A flock of 100 sheep, imported from Britain, arrived on the next-door farm in early February. The sheep were destroyed 10 days ago, as a precaution, like all the 20,000 British sheep sold to France before the first UK case was diagnosed.

Post-mortem tests later showed that eight flocks of these sheep, scattered to farms all over France, including those that came to La Baroche-Gondouin, had been exposed to, or were incubating, foot-and-mouth disease.

The farmer and trader who brought the sheep to Mayenne was reported by local people to be barricaded inside his home, fearful of reprisals. "He was already unpopular around here because he went bankrupt a few years ago, leaving piles of debts," said a farmer in the next village. "He would import sheep from Britain and Ireland and sell them after a few weeks as 'lamb from Mayenne'. Now this. You can imagine how people feel."

French veterinary officials were studying a possible connection between the Mayenne sheep trader and six suspect - but at yet unconfirmed - cases of foot-and-mouth among sheep on a farm in Seine and Marne, east of Paris.

With French farmers still suffering from the economic effects of their own BSE crisis - directly caused by exports of contaminated British animal feed - it was small wonder that British accents were unpopular with some people in Mayenne yesterday.

This is beef and dairy country, the second biggest beef-producing area in France.

In truth, many other local people were surprisingly courteous and helpful; or too shocked to speak at all.

"Usually, here, everyone is friendly. But now everyone has locked themselves in their homes," said Josiane, a woman in her earlier fifties at a farm in a neighbouring village. "Just when we need to support each other, we daren't because there is this terrible fear of carrying the disease from one farm to another. People don't even telephone, as if they are scared that the disease could pass down the telephone line."

A series of exclusion zones was imposed around the infected farm, preventing all but local people from entering the village and diverting traffic from main roads as far as 10 miles away.

Farmers in La Baroche-Gondouin were ordered to leave their animals in the fields while vets checked for symptoms of the disease. Like many rural communities in France, the farms and farm-buildings in Mayenne cluster together in the villages, increasing the chances of the virus passing from one herd to the next.

The French Agriculture Minister, Jean Glavany, warned that France should brace itself for further cases of the disease but promised that "everything will be done to keep the outbreak as limited as possible". He said that the post-mortems tests on the British-born sheep slaughtered in the past two weeks suggested that "at least half of them" might have been exposed to foot-and-mouthdisease.

He said the outbreak in Mayenne vindicated his decision to take draconian, preventative measures, including slaughtering all the sheep bought in Britain and 30,000 other sheep that had been in contact with them. There has been some criticism of the measures - which include a ban on all animal markets and movements of livestock, including race horses. All horse- racing has been suspended in France this weekend. Mr Glavany said the outbreak showed that the measures "were more justified than ever".

The French government is fearful that a wider outbreak could bring EU - and wider - import bans on French meat and dairy products. For individual British farmers, foot-and-mouth disease has been a catastrophe. In France, heavily dependent on farming, and especially food exports, a rapid spread of the sickness would amount to a national disaster.

In Britain, some have argued that foot-and-mouth is unimportant; that it only makes the animals sick for a few weeks and reduces their profitability. Why should we slaughter them all? Why not let the disease rip?

This urban view of farming - based on a view of agriculture as a kind of "petting zoo", an aesthetic activity rather than an economic activity - has had few echoes in France. The drastic measures taken by Mr Glavany have been widely supported by French farming unions and by most newspapers - until now. There was, however, yesterday, in Mayenne, and elsewhere, a growing drumbeat of complaint about the decision of the EU governments in 1991 to abandon systematic vaccination of animals against foot-and-mouth disease.

This decision was taken to boost animal and meat exports because many countries, including the United States, refuse to accept that vaccinated animals are guaranteed to be free of the disease. There are now calls in France - including from Michel Nicolas, a vet and mayor of Evron in Mayenne, near the scene of the outbreak - for vaccination to be brought back, as a matter or urgency. Economic arguments against vaccination "no longer make sense", he said.

"Slaughtering the original herd of imported sheep made sense. Slaughtering this herd of cows makes sense but what after that?" he said. "If we keep slaughtering herd after herd, we will destroy the French livestock industry, which is one of the finest in Europe."

However, French agricultural experts counselled against panic.

Professor Bernard Thomas, of the Belfort Veterinary School, said there was "no real risk of a great epidemic like we have seen in Britain. Preventative measures are already in place. These should have stopped the movements of livestock, already incubating the disease, that spread foot-and-mouth all over Britain.

"There may be isolated cases in France but we have every reason to believe we have done enough to prevent a large outbreak here." He may be right; but similarly optimistic remarks were made by the British Government.

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