17 March 2001
Epidemiologist queries mass slaughter

by Jonathan Riley

A SENIOR epidemiologist has backed farmers questioning the need to kill up to one million healthy animals around farms infected with foot-and-mouth disease.

Andrew James, director of veterinary epidemiology at Reading University, told FARMERS WEEKLY he was surprised and concerned at the mass slaughter plan.

The Ministry of Agriculture intends to slaughter all sheep within a 3km radius of infected farms in Cumbria, England; and Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland.

But Mr James spoke out in support of farmers who face the prospect of seeing the destruction of healthy flocks whose bloodlines go back generations.

“A 3km circle is too arbitrary and does not take into account the wind strength and direction or the movement of wild animals and people,” he said.

“All of these give vital clues to where the disease might have spread.

“Some healthy animals within the zone may have a smaller chance of catching the disease than would be imagined and therefore be slaughtered unnecessarily.”

Dr James said the approach to controlling the disease in Devon, where vets are stepping up surveillance around infected farms, could be used successfully instead.

“The Devon model of intensified surveillance is the right way,” he said.

Dr James also voiced criticism that the Ministry of Agriculture had not fully explained the scientific thinking behind a cull to farmers.

His sentiments were echoed by the Farmers Union of Wales which has called for a full scientific explanation of the need for mass slaughter.

FUW President Bob Parry said: “Farmers will only be satisfied if they can see the full scientific and medical evidence presented to the government by the chief veterinary officer which recommends this drastic course of action.”

A union statement hinted that it suspected that Prime Minister Tony Blair may have had ulterior motives for authorising the mass cull of healthy animals.

“The FUW wants the government to state categorically that the slaughter programme has not been introduced as a matter of political expediency to allow the Prime Minister to call a general election on his preferred date of May 3.”

But former president of the British Veterinary Association Keith Baker defended MAFF and explained why he thought the cull was necessary.

“Unlike Devon where the disease is in cattle cases in Cumbria and south west Scotland are in sheep where the disease is difficult to detect.

“If government resorted to blood testing this would allow more time for the virus to spread unhindered.

“Draconian though it is its better to slaughter and stop the virus multiplying,” insisted Mr Baker.

Foot-and-mouth – confirmed outbreaks
Foot-and-mouth – FWi coverage