'There is a line. It goes back to England, does it not?'

The Netherlands
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The Independent Online

A hard, biting blizzard swept through here yesterday, piling up banks of snow, blocking off roads. But another natural calamity was far worse, creating a sense of terrible desolation and despair with no relief in sight.

A hard, biting blizzard swept through here yesterday, piling up banks of snow, blocking off roads. But another natural calamity was far worse, creating a sense of terrible desolation and despair with no relief in sight.

The first cases of foot-and-mouth in the Netherlands will in effect mean that the main livelihood for this region will be destroyed. The "English disease" the Dutch feared is here and spreading. Three different confirmed outbreaks, and a possible fourth, have been reported and it is believed that at least 18,000 animals are likely to be destroyed even in the unlikely scenario of no further cases being found.

The Dutch had prided themselves on being ultra-careful with animal health and hygiene. The realisation that this did not save them from the contagion came as a shock. News of what had happened and the likely consequences quickly dominated the news bulletins and became the main topic of conversation.

The disease had spread rapidly. It appeared to have started at a goat farm in the village of Oene owned by the De Weerd family; from there it went to a cattle farm owned by them in neighbouring Welsum; and then across the river Lissel to a farm owned by Henk Klyn Veldeman in Olst.

The Dutch Agriculture Ministry was saying it was not yet sure what had started the cycle. But in Olst many of the locals had little doubt where the guilt lay. Standing outside the police cordon that had sealed off four farms in the hamlet of Den Nul, 59-year-old Johann Van Mulen said: "There is a line between Oene, Welsum and Olst so it has followed a pattern. But we all know how far that line goes, it goes back to England, does it not? That is where it started. It is an invisible export."

Rene Boskampf, a farm worker from nearby Elshof, shook his head. "Henk is a good man," he said. "He took a lot of care about the health of his animals. I do not think farmers in England take much care and we all suffer as a result. Look, Henk's farm has been in the family for generations, and now he will lose it all." He shook the falling snow from his head and walked off.

His companion, Cornelius Haas, added: "This is a new way of sending us football hooligans. I am only joking!" No one laughed.

A few others were embarrassed by these views. Rolf Lindemans protested: "Look, we should not jump to these conclusions. There is talk that infected straw came from France. That could have caused it, who knows? Anyway, we are in Europe, and we have to accept the diseases of Europe."

The Dutch appear to have a natural antipathy to culling animals and recently the Agriculture Minister argued forcefully in Brussels that vaccination was a more effective as well as a more humane answer.

But there is now an awareness that with the European Commission imposing stinging regulations on Dutch livestock, only mass slaughter would assuage fears among European neighbours. Cor Van Den Berg, the deputy mayor of Olst, was reconciling himself to that. He said: "We understand that all that has to be done will be done. Maybe they will go for the mass cull. The effect here would be catastrophic. The Netherlands is a very small country, it will be very, very difficult to keep this localised."

By dusk yesterday, bulldozers were moving through the police lines to start digging the pits where, it is believed, the first 1,100 animals to be killed, from the four farms, will be buried.

A quarter of a mile down the road, local men, mainly agricultural workers, were gathering to drown their worries. There was a pride in the bloodlines of their livestock, they said, and care was taken when importing livestock. In any event, there had been no movement of cattle or sheep for two weeks, thought to be the gestation period of foot-and-mouth. "I was worried the snow would kill some of my lambs," said one farmer, swigging back a beer, "What a laugh. I am going to lose all of them, aren't I?"

There is an added dimension that makes the emergency in the Netherlands, in a small way, different from most other parts of Western Europe. Farms here are often placed within rural residential areas and many pet animals will have to be destroyed.

Wieneke Kolk,16, lives in the cordoned-off area next to the farms. "I have a horse I love very much, but she will have to go", she said. "A lot of my schoolfriends will lose their pets. It's very sad."