THE RECOGNISED theory on foot-and-mouth disease transmission has been thrown into doubt by a farmers weekly investigation.

The government’s official version of events stated that the disease was carried through the air from Bobby Waugh’s pig unit at Burnside Farm, Heddon-on-the-Wall, directly to cattle and sheep at Prestwick Hall Farm, Ponteland.

The theory’s detractors have long claimed that this was highly unlikely, even impossible, because the PanAsia Type O virus strain does not travel well through air beyond 200m (660ft).

Now with the emergence of the Northumberland Trading Standards video, taken on Bobby Waugh’s Burnside Farm in Feb 2001 (News, Oct 29), FW has unearthed evidence of a possible alternative mode of transmission.

The video shows a dog tearing at a dead sheep on Burnside’s rubbish heap and has begged the question from all of those who have seen the video, “How did the sheep get there?”.

Speaking to Mr Waugh, FW has learned that the animal shown in the video was one of eight dead sheep, brought on to the farm on Jan 24, 2001 – four weeks before the disease was confirmed at the farm.

Mr Waugh said that the sheep were brought to his farm by a man, whose name is withheld, from land near to Prestwick Hall Farm.

“We put the sheep in a shed out of the way for a while because Jim Dring [the government vet] was due to carry out his inspection for my Article 26 licence that afternoon,” he said. The sheep were dragged out of the shed and burned over the next few days.

Bristol University professor, Sheila Crispin, said: “The presence of the sheep at Burnside Farm and the emerging details of the movements from a site near Prestwick Hall, create considerable uncertainty over the agreed transmission theory.

“With the weather around Heddon-on-the-Wall in February 2001 and what we know of the PanAsia Type O strain, it would have been very difficult indeed for the virus to have travelled from Burnside Farm to Prestwick Hall Farm without [first] infecting the sheep flocks and cattle and pig herds in between,” she said.

The revelation was also described as “startling” by a senior civil servant, who was privy to the decision-making process at the heart of government’s F&M control centre.

“I forget who first came up with the airborne theory,” said the civil servant. “Some disagreed with it because the Type O strain does not travel in this way. But gradually the weight of opinion swung behind the airborne theorists because there was no other hard evidence for any other transmission method.

“With what we now know we must look again at the other theories – after all, the contiguous cull was linked to the airborne theory.”