17 March 2001
Chief vet plays down disease theory
by Alistair Driver
CLAIMS that foot-and-mouth may have been moving around the British sheep flock in January have been played down by chief veterinary officer Jim Scudamore.
Sheep exported to the South of France from the UK in January have recently been found to contain foot-and-mouth antibodies.
Herefordshire sheep exporter Kevin Feakins told Farmers Weekly he has heard the sheep had not been in contact with other farms while in France.
This has prompted speculation that the virus may have been in the sheep when they were exported by a different trader in January.
Speaking at a media briefing in London on Friday (16 March), Mr Scudamore acknowledged to journalists that he had been told about the antibodies.
“I have had reports along these lines but the situation is not clear. There is a question about whether they are true antibodies or not,” he said.
If they are true antibodies, the sheep may have picked them up in France, he said. “As far as I can recall the situation in France is still under investigation.”
Mr Scudamore said the indication was still that the oldest case of the disease in Britain was at the Heddon-on-the-Wall pig fattening unit, Northumberland.
Experts still think the disease spread after sheep were sold from a neighbouring Northumberland flock to Devon sheep dealer Willy Cleave on 13 February.
This sparked a chain of infection as sheep moved through various livestock auctions, including Longtown market, Carlisle, and Northampton market.
Mr Feakins and Mr Cleave, who sold him the infected sheep, have been targeted by the government as the two dealers who unwittingly spread the disease.
Now Mr Feakins wants the Ministry of Agriculture to follow up the possibility that infected sheep sold by someone else went to the South of France in January.
Agriculture minister Nick Brown said there had been rumours that foot-and-mouth was around before mid-February, but none have been substantiated.