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11:00 - 17 November 2004
Mystery deepened over the origins of the foot and mouth disaster yesterday after the Government denied that dead sheep had been found on the Northumberland pig farm where the epidemic is thought to have started - despite video evidence to the contrary.

In a written Parliamentary answer, the Animal Health Minister Ben Bradshaw said that Government inspectors had "found no dead sheep" at Burnside Farm, the pig farm run by Bobby Waugh at Heddon-on-the-Wall where the 2001 epidemic is said to have started.

Mr Bradshaw's comments appear to contradict evidence contained in a video shot by Northumberland Trading Standards when they, together with officials from the then Ministry of Agriculture, visited Mr Waugh's farm on 24 February 2001, the day after foot and mouth was confirmed in pigs on the farm.

The video, which only emerged last month, appears to show a dog tugging at a dead sheep on a smouldering tip at the farm.

The presence of sheep on the farm raised the prospect that the epidemic could have started elsewhere in the sheep population and been brought to Burnside Farm.

The emergence of the video prompted the Shadow Agriculture Minister Owen Paterson to table a number of Parliamentary questions asking whether the sheep had been tested for foot and mouth.

In his reply Mr Bradshaw, who has refused to watch the video, said the department "found no dead sheep on Burnside Farm either on 24 February or on any other date in 2001".

A Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesman said it was "hard to tell" whether the video showed a dead sheep.

He added: "When our inspectors visited the farm there was no evidence of sheep or sheep remains." Mr Paterson said Defra appeared to be trying to deflect calls for the inquiry into the disaster to be re-opened.

"I have seen the video and there are sheep there," he said. "It is quite clear that they just do not want to reopen the issue."

The Lib-Dem rural affairs spokesman Andrew George, who has also seen the video, said he was "mystified" by Mr Bradshaw's reply.

He said: "It is a poor quality video, but I saw a sheep carcass there. Maybe the carcass was alive and walked off."

Mr George said he was also surprised by another answer from Mr Bradshaw in which the minister said Defra had agreed to provide "all relevant papers" to the "lessons learned" inquiry chaired by Dr Iain Anderson.

Mr George said Defra had already been forced to admit that it had withheld a key report in which the Government vet, Jim Dring, said the disaster "would never have come about" if his inspection of the farm in the weeks leading up to the outbreak had been "more rigorous".

The video of Mr Waugh's farm also does not appear to have gone to the inquiry.

Mr George said: "In fact it seems that all relevant papers went to Dr Anderson except for the most juicy, most relevant ones. As it was his inquiry did not really deal with the issue of how the outbreak started.

"If he had had this evidence I think it is inconceivable that he would not at least have addressed it in order to see whether lessons could have been learned.

"It is all very well blaming Bobby Waugh, but the fact is that his farm was allowed to get into that state and still given a licence."

However a spokesman for Defra insisted that there was no evidence that the outbreak started elsewhere. He said extensive tests had found no evidence of infection older than that discovered on Waugh's farm.