Return of farm virus puts North-east on war footing

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The Independent Online

The return of foot-and-mouth to Northumberland after three months has led local police to take extreme measures to prevent any further spread of the disease.

The return of foot-and-mouth to Northumberland after three months has led local police to take extreme measures to prevent any further spread of the disease.

Just ask the two cameramen on a visit to the North-east who were told to strip to their underpants before being forced to don white paper suits while their clothes were soaked with disinfectant. That is a measure of the panic that has swept the county since the confirmation of a new case at Ninebanks, in the Allen valley, only six days ago.

Officials in overalls now spray with disinfectant all vehicles travelling to and from Hexham, 18 miles away, and road signs spell it all out for those who have spent the year on another planet. "Animal disease: foot-and-mouth infected area", they warn. Not even in foot-and-mouth's darkest days, when doomsday theorists predicted an entire wipe-out of Cumbrian cattle and sheep, was northern England on a war footing akin to this.

None of the precautions could forestall two further cases on Tuesday ­ both around Allendale, near the initial cluster. Bad news for Robert Coulson, whose 720 acres of land, with a flock of pedigree black-faced sheep, borders on 16 farms including Bishopside, where one of the new cases was identified. "He always knew he stood a fair chance of calamity, farming a patch that large and bordering so many," said his desolate brother, Matt Coulson, general manager of Allendale's Co-operative store.

Ian Lamb, a Bishopside farmer, was too distraught to speak as the sounds of his 82 cattle being destroyed filtered through the air for several hours around lunchtime, on a breezy, sunny day.

Hearts also sank eight miles away at the bottom of the Allen valley, one of the less-known beauty spots of northern England, which is also under threat from foot-and-mouth.

All morning, government vets darted around the area into premises with feared "dangerous contacts" ­ such as White Hill Farm in the incongruously beautiful hamlet of Dirt Pot (vehicles heading through it to lead mines used to churn up its road 100 years ago).

White Hill was safe, declared a vet from Brisbane, Australia, here on a six-month assignment to help with the war effort. "There's a feeling we might beat this outbreak because of what we learnt six months ago," he said.

Arthur Griffiths, divisional veterinary manager at the Newcastle Disease Emergency Control Centre investigating the outbreak, was also privately relieved that the new case was in the vicinity of existing ones.

But it is a characteristic of this outbreak ­ as with the Lancashire/North Yorkshire "Skipton rectangle" visited by a second phase of the virus this summer ­ that affected farmers own small, scattered parcels of land, which leaves them at risk.

"We're resilient in [the] Wear [valley] but this is pressure. We're praying this doesn't move down to us," said a farmer in Dirt Pot. He wouldn't be named.

Last night, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced plans to "squeeze" from both ends of the valley towards the middle of the cluster and narrowed down the outbreak to two likely sources: sheep grazed on common land in which the disease had previously not been noted or, more likely, careless agricultural movement.

Other popular products of the local rumour machine were apparently ruled out as causes, including grouse shooting and the suggestion that the infection was deliberately delivered to the first farmer, accompanied by a ragwort wreath.

The new closure of footpaths on Hadrian's Wall, on the English side of the border with Scotland, threatens new economic hardship for tourism businesses that had been expecting a late season pick-up in trade. But the most certain misery will be visited on the animals of the Allen valley. Lambs that might otherwise have headed for auction will now be stranded on the hills, cold and starving as winter encroaches.