NORTHERN IRELAND‘S veterinary experts were put on red alert this week (w/e June 11), as the Department of Agriculture (DARD) carried out a full-blown test of the province‘s foot-and-mouth contingency plans.

Over 100 staff were involved in the simulation, called Operation Shearwater, which was based on a theoretical outbreak of F&M in two goats on a large dairy farm near Stewartstown, Co Tyrone.

A “gold level” strategic command and a “silver level” tactical command were established at DARD headquarters in Belfast under the direction of permanent undersecretary Pat Toal.

And a “bronze level” operational command was set up at Loughry College, Cookstown, near the source of the “outbreak”, to implement the control measures.

On the ground, preparations were made to “slaughter” the infected herd as quickly as possible, together with all susceptible livestock within a 1km radius.

Carcasses would have been taken away for rendering.

A “protection zone” with a movement freeze was also established within 3km of the affected holding, and a “surveillance zone” set up covering all farms within 10km.

But at no stage was a decision taken to introduce emergency vaccination during the simulation.

“This was all about day one of a possible outbreak,” said Northern Ireland‘s chief vet Bert Houston.

“We would not know what strain of F&M we were dealing with, so would not be able to vaccinate even if we wanted to.”

At the DARD tactical command, about 25 staff were involved in tracing products and livestock originating from the infected farm, manning a helpline for farmers and passing information up and down the communication chain.

Senior executives also had to attend an impromptu press conference to brief the media.

During the day other scenarios were fed into the exercise, including a suspected outbreak on another farm elsewhere in the province.

“It was very realistic,” said Mr Houston. “It felt just like the first day of a real outbreak.”

Representatives from stakeholder groups, including farmers, the army, the food industry and other government departments, were invited to take part in Operation Shearwater as observers.

“It was good to see the level of preparedness, with nominated staff and pre-planned controls,” said Ulster Farmers Union animal health officer Ian Stevenson.