Maff insists it was right to cull healthy animals

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The Independent Online

Thousands of animals slaughtered on suspicion of having foot-and-mouth disease were not infected, subsequent blood tests have shown.

Thousands of animals slaughtered on suspicion of having foot-and-mouth disease were not infected, subsequent blood tests have shown.

More than half of cases where vets were in doubt about the presence of the disease later tested negative, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said.

But Maff officials and farmers' leaders insisted that culling animals on suspicion of having the disease was essential to prevent the possible spread of foot-and-mouth while laboratory tests were done.

Details of the extent of the preventive slaughter came after news that livestock on the farm that prompted the cancellation of this year's National Hunt Festival at Cheltenham eventually tested negative for the disease.

A total of 186 cattle, 190 ewes and 100 lambs were slaughtered at Bozard Farm, in Woolstone, just a short distance from Cheltenham racecourse after vets found clinical signs of the disease. Livestock was also culled at neighbouring farms.

A spokesman for Maff said livestock had been slaughtered on suspicion at about 160 farms. But no disease had been found in "more than half" of cases. Maff officials insist it is essential to cull animals on suspicion to prevent disease spreading while vets await test results. Under the Government's slaughter policy, vets have discretion to order a cull if they suspect livestock have foot-and-mouth disease.

In clear-cut cases, vets diagnose cases from clinical symptoms alone, and confirm an outbreak in a telephone call to Maff's national disease control centre in London, triggering an immediate cull of animals on the infected farm and neighbouring holdings.

In cases where vets are unsure, they can order a cull of animals on the suspect farm, but slaughter on neighbouring premises is put on hold until the disease is confirmed.

A Maff spokesman said: "Test results take four to five days to come through because there are a series of tests for foot-and-mouth.

"We can't wait for five days to cull the animals, but when farms are culled on suspicion we don't do the contiguous cull until those results come through one way or another. We are trying to make a proportionate response. We need to stamp out the disease, but we need to be proportionate as unnecessary slaughter holds up the disposal of animals."

Edward Gillespie, managing director of Cheltenham Racecourse, dismissed suggestions that the Gold Cup festival could have been saved had the Woolstone case not emerged.

Cases confirmed in the nearby villages of Teddington and Boddington would have forced the race meeting to be cancelled in any event, he said.

"Maff are still treating it as a confirmed case. My reaction was one of extreme sorrow for the farmers and their neighbours all of whom lost their stock," he said.

The National Farmers' Union backed the cull. "With a virus of this nature it's understandable to err on the side of caution because it can spread very quickly. It's galling for farmers but it would be more galling if there was a suspect case which spread while farmers were waiting for tests."