The mass grave is dug. And the soft, sweet smell in the air is death

The slaughter
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The Independent Online

There is a faint sweetness in the air. The early daffodils are out in hedgerows laced with the first bursts of yellow gorse. Catkins dangle, golden on the hazels, purple on the alders. In the fields the newborn lambs, only a few days old, spring still unsteady on their feet. Spring is here in the far northern reaches of the Lake District and the first signs of new life are all around.

There is a faint sweetness in the air. The early daffodils are out in hedgerows laced with the first bursts of yellow gorse. Catkins dangle, golden on the hazels, purple on the alders. In the fields the newborn lambs, only a few days old, spring still unsteady on their feet. Spring is here in the far northern reaches of the Lake District and the first signs of new life are all around.

Only when a large red lorry thunders past do you realise that the faint soft sweet smell to the air is the odour of death. Death from far off. Close by the lorries carry with them the more pungent smell of rotting flesh, filling the hedge-trimmed lane with a sudden reminder of the tragedy that has seized the British countryside this spring.

For this is the disused airfield at Great Orton, between Wigton and Carlisle, which has been designated the first of five or six sites for the mass burial of animals in the latest drastic measure to try to halt the progress of the foot-and-mouth virus that is devastating great swaths of the rural landscape.

Yesterday they were moving in dead animals - some 7,500 of the backlog of 70,000 slaughtered carcasses that have been littering farmyards and fields since they were culled to try to stem the spread of the disease. To judge by the stench as the wagons passed, they were first burying many of the animals killed some time ago. On Cumbrian farms there are still beasts lying unburied as much as seven days after they were put down by slaughtermen from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

But tomorrow they will begin to ship in live animals to kill and bury them on site. The environmental authorities have licensed the airfield to hold as many as half a million sheep - cattle cannot be buried for fear of spreading BSE.

The Army will begin shipping them from the southern extremity of the culling zone around Penrith in an attempt to create a cordon sanitaire between the infected lowland areas bordering the Solway and the upland farms of the Caldbeck Fells, which is where the land begins to rise to the Lake District proper. Healthy animals as well as those with the disease are to die.

This is a race against time, which the troops from the 42nd North West Brigade know they may already have lost. In the heart of the Lake District foot-and-mouth has been reported in Duddon Valley to the west of Coniston Water, some 30 miles from the nearest known site of the infection - a testament to the terrifying ability of the virus to carry on the wind.

Among the animals at risk are 75,000 Herdwick sheep, a breed native to the Lake District, which weather the harsh local climate better than any other breed and which, over the generations, have become what is known in Lake-speak as "heffed" - that is, they have developed a loyalty to a particular fell, which prevents them from roaming too widely. None the less, because the fells are unfenced, the odd animal could wander far, carrying the disease. The policy of slaughtering not just infected animals but those classed as "dangerous contacts" could have devastating implications.

All of which leads to very mixed feelings in Great Orton about the village's new-found status as Cumbria's foot-and-mouth graveyard.

The village butcher, James Mullholland, is stoical. "I'd rather it wasn't here but it has to be somewhere," he said. Ironically, although there is disease all around Orton, the village itself is free. That includes Mr Mullholland's dozen prize cattle - one of them a 12,000 guinea pedigree Limousin bull - and his 50 ewes, which have produced 70 lambs in the past month. "We know it's not a question of if but when," he said. "Everyone is resigned to the fact." At the Wellington Inn, though, the mood was one of anger. The landlady, Liz Currie, and a group of friends were gathered in the otherwise empty pub. "No one had the courtesy to tell us in advance; we only heard about it on the news," said one. "No one has reassured us it will be safe," said another. "And are our children going to feel the effects?" said a third.

Up at the old aerodrome, Brigadier Alex Birtwhistle was trying to give such reassurance. His men were supervising the digging of interceptor ditches, like a moat all around the site, to detect any seepage from the buried corpses. Officials there were sanguine about the environmental risk.

What Brig Birtwhistle was more worried about was whether he would be able to get hold of enough sealed trucks today to step up the transport of animals, enough auctioneers to value the live sheep, enough slaughtermen to kill them and enough diggers to keep up with the burial trenches.

But if the anger of the women in the pub lacked focus it was no less intense for that. Cumbria is now a very angry county. "Blair fiddles while Cumbria burns," says a large sign painted on a farmer's trailer by the motorway.

The ire is only fuelled by the increasing sense of isolation people feel, whether they are pub landlords with no customers, or farmers who are cut off from the world by rafts of disinfected straw, trailers blocking farm entrances, signs that proclaim "Animals under observation - Essential Visitors Only". Government ministers may insist that the countryside is open for business but the tape across the entrance to picnic areas and even the village children's playground tells another story.

Only one place yesterday seemed a hive of industry. At the old aerodrome the tipper lorries came in a steady stream. Men in white hooded suits busied themselves with disinfectant. Army Land Rovers scurried across the site. Police cars hurtled down the narrow lane, with full sirens blazing. Above it all the huge electricity-generating windmills that now occupy the airfield turned constantly, adding a surreal dimension to the proceedings.

And across the sere scrub grass of the neighbouring fields March hares darted. There was a kind of madness in the air.

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