Ireland fears the worst as farm is sealed off

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Irish farmers, who escaped unscathed the last time foot-and-mouth disease struck Britain in 1967, are facing the prospect of the current outbreak affecting them.

Irish farmers, who escaped unscathed the last time foot-and-mouth disease struck Britain in 1967, are facing the prospect of the current outbreak affecting them.

Yesterday a farm on the Irish border was sealed off as officials from Northern Ireland prepared to do tests on suspected sheep. The province's Agriculture Minister, Brid Rogers, said that a five-mile surveillance zone has been placed around the area in Meigh, near Newry, South Armagh. Republic of Ireland authorities have been informed.

An outbreak of foot-and-mouth could prove catastrophic for a country that relies so heavily on agriculture. Although the 1967 outbreak never actually reached Ireland, it is still the subject of many angry discussions in Irish countryside circles, especially in Ulster where it caused severe damage. Large areas of the country were put in quarantine as desperate measures to halt its progress were adopted. Five-mile exclusion zones, similar to those imposed yesterday, were so common that they began to overlap as each new case was identified.

This time, it is understood that the suspect animals arrived from a market in Carlisle a fortnight ago. They had been certified for immediate slaughter but did not go to an abattoir and some were found on the Armagh farm instead.

Ms Rodgers said: "My department has become aware a consignment of sheep was sent to Northern Ireland from Great Britain just over a week ago, before we were aware of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak there, and before I banned such movements.

"That consignment was certified as intended for immediate slaughter. The sheep in question did not in fact go for slaughter. Some have now been found on a farm in Northern Ireland.

"Our investigations now suggest that some of the sheep involved were sourced in Carlisle at the same time as known infected animals. Staff from my department are currently trying to trace the ultimate destination of all the sheep in question, but we do know that some went to premises at Meigh. Our vets are on the farm at present and as a precaution are slaughtering the stock on the farm."

A spokesman for the Ulster Farmers Union, Joe McDonald, said: "We have already had one suspected case and it would appear to have been a false alarm. Now we have these animals which apparently came from a 'hot spot' near Carlisle. If this should prove to be positive it will change things completely." The Republic, meanwhile, has become a country under siege and its opposition Fine Gael party, popular with landowners and farmers, announced yesterday that it had cancelled its annual conference, due to take place in Dublin this weekend.

The Six Nations rugby clash between Ireland and Wales due to take place in Cardiff on Saturday has been called off.

After the identification of the first suspected case in South Armagh, Army headquarters said it had added to measures brought in earlier in the week. What the Army called "modified" patrolling was being carried out.

But it stressed that the increased threat from republican dissidents who it said "may seek to take advantage of the present tragic situation to commit additional atrocities" prevented it from ceasing operational activity.

However, it said helicopter flights within South Armagh had been adjusted, as had naval activities aimed at preventing the import or export of terrorist material.

All troops and military vehicles arriving in the province from Britain were being decontaminated, training activity restricted to areas where livestock had no access and all non-essential training in Britain by troops from Northern Ireland had been stopped.

The Army statement came after Sinn Fein made a call in the Irish parliament for all British soldiers patrolling the border to be withdrawn to barracks to avoid the threat of them spreading the virus.

There are still vivid memories of the last occasion, in 1941, when the disease actually crossed the Irish Sea. A retired farmer, Gerry Keys, recalled the "desperate" measures which had to be taken when the virus was discovered among his father's holding in Creevagh back then. The bulk of his family's livestock had to be destroyed.

He said: "It was desperate. We had to get rid of the cattle and pigs out of the yard. They then had to be destroyed. We had 10 cattle and about 50 pigs. They were buried in fields on the Buncrana Road. We had to pressure hose the walls of the yard with caustic soda before animals could be let back in.

"I remember it also happened in Crossan's yard in the Bogside and O'Donnell's, which also kept cattle for the abattoir, was also infected. I think it affected Northern Ireland for about four or five months. It was a terrible blow for agriculture here."

The Army last night took further steps to prevent its patrol activities risking spreading foot-and-mouth disease.