28 December 2001

Contiguous culling discord

GOVERNMENT policy of slaughtering animals next to foot-and-mouth infected premises caused anger and fear among producers, particularly when cullings were labelled non-scientific and possibly illegal.

Contiguous culling was a reaction against the seemingly unrelenting spread of the disease in certain areas. However, the effectiveness of culling stock on neighbouring farms was never established because no blood tests were taken before slaughter.

For those unwilling or unable to fight culling, the emotional toll was huge. "The possibility of slaughter has spread fear like wildfire," said south-west NFU policy adviser Robert Deane.

Some producers believed the contiguous culls to be justified, such as David Richardson of Jedburgh, who lost 1800 sheep and 300 cattle. "We would have got the disease anyway but culling halted F&M spread in this area," he said.

FW south-west correspondent John Burns reported resistance to contiguous culling was growing in April. "Ordinary producers cannot see the point of killing perfectly sound and apparently healthy animals, particularly when the authorities are still leaving carcasses of infected animals stinking and rotting on site for up to a week."

The ratio of contiguous to confirmed cases was particularly high in Devon at about 3:1, reported British Cattle Vet Association president Dick Sibley, who practices in the area. "Definitions of contiguous premises are completely different in different areas. In Devon, the definition is oversimplified and based on convenience for MAFF, rather than sound vet science," he said.

"A risk assessment policy, which any competent vet with experience could carry out, would reduce the number of animals slaughtered, while not jeopardising F&M control."

He was supported by Ken Tyrell, an ex-MAFF foot-and-mouth expert, who described the way the epidemic had been handled as unscientific, inept and shameful. He said observation rather than slaughter should be used on contiguous farms, and all available men and machines put on standby to tackle real cases within hours.

But this was too late to stop the flood of legal cases bought against the government. Early court cases failed, such as Peter Buckley, of Westerhall Farm, Dumfriesshire. The judge, Lord Carloway, rejected the argument that EU Animal Health directives only allowed government to monitor contiguous animals to see if they were infected, rather than culling. The judge also ruled that Mr Buckleys human rights had not been breached.

But at the High Court on June 21, Mr Justice Harrison ruled the State Vet Service did not have powers to slaughter the pet sheep and pig belonging to Rosemary Upton in Somerset. Solicitors Burges Salmon said the ruling meant DEFRA should carry out a proper risk assessment on each contiguous premises.

MAFF did eventually end the automatic contiguous cull of cattle, allowing local vet officers to judge the need for slaughter. &#42