British Farmers Fight to Keep their Animals Alive

Monday, March 19th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LONDON - Farmers opposed to killing apparently healthy animals to stop the spread of foot-and-mouth disease put their case to Britain's chief veterinarian Monday, while officials rejected mass vaccination as an alternative.

The number of confirmed cases rose to 326 on Monday, with the three latest cases all found in Cumbria, the northeastern English county where chief veterinarian Jim Scudamore was meeting farmers.

``We have to keep the strategy under review,'' Scudamore said Monday in a radio interview with the British Broadcasting Corp.

``If one is looking at a strategic plan in dealing with a disease, you have to look at all the weapons in the armory. But at the moment, the policy is identify, quarantine and destroy the herds and remove (the disease) by stamping out,'' he said.

On Monday, European Union agriculture ministers were to meet in Brussels, Belgium to discuss how to fight the disease. British Agriculture Minister Nick Brown was expected to explain his country's efforts.

The British government announced last week that it planned to destroy all sheep and pigs within two miles of any confirmed outbreak in Cumbria and southern Scotland, where many of the cases are concentrated. Animals that had passed through markets known to have the infection, and any animal they, in turn, had come in contact with, were also marked for destruction.

Farmer Colin Strang-Steel said he was consulting lawyers about protecting his animals at Blainslie, Scotland from being killed. His farm was tested last month because he had bought a sheep at Longtown market, which is believed to have been a key point for spreading the infection.

``We underwent four separate inspections by the ministry vets and they found nothing wrong with any of our flock or our cattle,'' Strang-Steel said. ``I would be the first to agree to their slaughter if there was any sign of infection, but there is no logic to this whatsoever.''

Jim Walker, president of the National Farmers' Union in Scotland, defended the cull. He said it was especially difficult to test for the disease in sheep, making them the biggest risk.

Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, called for mass vaccinations, a strategy he said was successfully used in Albania and Macedonia in 1996.

``We now think that there is a possibility that we could use vaccination in place of slaughter in the firebreak zones and to dampen infection in the areas where it already occurs,'' said Holden, whose group campaigns for organic farming.

``In our view it would be much cheaper than the present slaughter policy,'' he said.

But David Maclean, a Conservative lawmaker in Cumbria, said that switching to vaccination strategy ``would be absolutely disastrous.''

``The policy of killing outright is the right one. The reason it is not working is because it is not happening fast enough,'' Maclean said.

Unlike mad-cow disease, foot-and-mouth poses no threat to human health. Its impact is mainly economic, causing sickness and weight loss in herds of cloven-hoofed animals such as cattle, sheep and pigs.