The slaughter will take time, but Maff prefers that to the alternative

The Options
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The Independent Online

The logistical problems created by the slaughter policy are mounting.

The logistical problems created by the slaughter policy are mounting.

Killing

The principal obstacle, according to advisers at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff), is the number of people available to kill animals. "People say you should just send in the army, but you can't send a Saracen [tank] in and machine-gun them. Soldiers know how to kill soldiers. Killing animals is not the same," one official said.

Each animal must first be restrained so it will not injure other animals or people. Then it is killed with a rifle shot or stun gun. Then, a metal rod is driven into its brain to destroy the motor nerves, ensuring the dying animal will not kick out in its last moments.

Each slaughter takes up to 10 minutes and must be carried out, or supervised, by a vet. "We have 473 Maff vets and 661 temporary ones," said a Maff spokesman. "To the question of how many are required, the answer is simply: as many as we can get."

There are presently slightly more than 180,000 animals earmarked for slaughter under the existing "quarantine zones". That number will leap if the size of the zone is extended to 3km (two miles).

Disposal

The burial of slaughtered animals was recommended by the 1969 parliamentary report, but that is impractical in most cases here, says Maff.

"In those days there were smaller holdings - not so many animals. But now there are two issues: in places like Cumbria, if you go down a few feet you hit bedrock.

"Also, the Environment Agency has regulations now that weren't there in 1967, about possible pollution of groundwater by killed animals. As it is theoretically possible that some of the cattle - and even sheep - might be harbouring BSE, or mad cow disease, burial is not widely feasible.

Burning is difficult. "Sheep are difficult to burn. You need high temperatures, and the materials which produce that - such as railways sleepers and coal - are not readily available in places like Devon," said a Maff spokesman.

The rendering of dead animals is already happening. But the plants that are capable of reducing the carcasses to a fine powder are already working overtime. "They can deal with 30 vehicles daily which can each carry up to 200 sheep or 40 cattle," Maff said. "They could handle more, but the delay is in disinfecting the trucks that carry the carcasses."

Vaccination

Vaccination came a step closer to becoming the solution to Britain's calamitous foot-and-mouth outbreak yesterday, after the Dutch government was given permission by Europe's chief vets to vaccinate animals up to 10km (six miles) around any outbreaks.

But according to Maff, outright slaughter - without any vaccination - is still the preferred option in Britain.

Alex Donaldson, the head of the Institute of Animal Health at Pirbright, Surrey, said yesterday that the principal reason against using any form of vaccination was that vaccinated animals "could continue to harbour the disease - in cattle for three years and in sheep for nine months".

Dr Donaldson outlined three options for vaccination - but knocked each one down in turn.

Yet each of Maff's objections has a counter-objection; and as the action of the Dutch government shows, the wider interest can outweigh the narrower aims of Maff, which still exists to protect farmers' interests rather than the general economic welfare of Britain.

Instead, Maff officials have suggested widening the "quarantine" area around every outbreak and killing every animal in that area. Maff described three approaches to vaccination: "ring" vaccination as an emergency measure at the onset of an outbreak; "firewall" vaccination in the area surrounding an outbreak where the virus could have spread; and "mass" vaccination of every animal in the country.

The problem with ring and firewall vaccination, said Dr Donaldson, is that "it is difficult to define the limits of zones". Vaccinating sheep is difficult because it is hard to say whether they are already infected or not; vaccinating an animal that is already incubating the disease does not stop it getting ill. And lambs, which are most at risk from the disease because it can kill them, only get limited immunity from their mother's milk.

Finding the personnel to administer and record vaccination is also difficult, he said.

But observers noted that Maff has by contrast had no difficulty in defining how big slaughter zones should be. The problems of vaccinating sheep, they argue, must be less than those of slaughtering and disposing of them; and any lambs which survive the disease will show their promise as breeding stock.

Finally, the Soil Association has pointed out that farm personnel are already capable of performing vaccinations - and would welcome the chance if it could preserve their livelihoods. "They're just sitting around now waiting for their herds to be slaughtered," said Lawrence Woodward, a scientific adviser to the association. By contrast, the slaughtering of animals has to be carried out by vets.

So far, nobody has suggested mass vaccination.

Dr Donaldson admitted that "strategic vaccination" of cattle would protect them and reduce the amount of virus produced. But, he said, "the disease would be likely to continue in any other non-vaccinated species, especially sheep. The slaughter policy would continue and the total number of animals killed could be greater."

However, Australian agricultural students have for years carried out a simulation as part of their studies which shows very plainly that small-scale vaccination leads to fewer animals dying directly from the disease. The more animals are vaccinated, the more quickly the disease is eradicated: with one in 20 susceptible animals vaccinated, fewer animals die but the epidemic is no shorter. With 50 per cent of susceptible animals vaccinated, there are barely any deaths from the disease, which disappears in just under seven weeks - instead of the 25 weeks that slaughter requires.

The results of their computer-modelling work is abundant on the internet, yet Dr Donaldson said yesterday that Maff had not yet had any feedback on what the effects of a vaccination programme would be on the length of this outbreak. Three teams are working on computer models of the disease - but "they are working through the options in order, and the first one they considered is slaughter," he said.

Vaccination has a time lag before it becomes effective, Maff pointed out. There would also be a cost of the vaccine and its administration.

Those however are not out of line with the costs of slaughter and compensation, said the Soil Association - and vaccinated animals could be sold for food. Foot-and-mouth poses no risks to humans.

Vaccination would lead to severe restrictions on the export of livestock, semen and embryos, the halt of exports of fresh and frozen meat offal and pasteurised milk and would have a "VERY HIGH COST" - the capitals being used in the Maff presentation.

However, exports have already been halted - and Britain is a net importer of meats. Furthermore it is already suffering 10 times greater losses from the lack of tourism. Challenged on this yesterday, Maff officials said that it was not their responsibility to consider the costs to other industries.

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