FOOT AND MOUTH CHIEF READY TO STAND DOWN
 
The vet who oversaw the Government's controversial foot and mouth strategy is to stand down next year - and ministers are offering a six-figure salary to attract a replacement. Jim Scudamore, who came under pressure to quit his post as the Government's chief vet in the wake of the 2001 crisis, is to retire next year.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has now hired recruitment consultants in a bid to fill the role, which attracts a salary of more than 100,000 a year.

Dr Scudamore rose to public prominence during the foot and mouth crisis when he oversaw the controversial contiguous cull policy, which led to the slaughter of more than six million animals, most of them perfectly healthy.

But although he was nominally in charge of the policy and supportive of it in public, the decision to widen the cull is believed to have been taken by Downing Street on the advice of the Government's chief scientist David King.

Privately Dr Scudamore is believed to have harboured doubts about the policy, which brought the disease under control only at the cost of an enormous number of animal lives and vast sums of public money.

Nevertheless Dr Scudamore came under pressure to quit when inquiries into the handling of the disaster revealed that he had failed to implement fully an internal report warning that the State Veterinary Service would quickly become "overwhelmed" in the event of a major disease outbreak. The Government's contingency plan for dealing with foot and mouth was also heavily criticised for working on the basis of a maximum of only ten cases of the disease. In the event there were more than 2,000.

But ministers were reluctant to allow Dr Scudamore to become a scapegoat and a Defra spokesman yesterday said he would remain in the post until his normal retirement date next spring. Ian Johnson, spokesman for the National Farmers' Union in the South West, said Dr Scudamore had presided over a system that proved far too centralised during the foot and mouth crisis.

"I am sure he made a very valuable contribution during his time, but I'm not sure he will be much missed by Westcountry farmers," he said.

"Particularly during the foot and mouth crisis there was a terrible atmosphere of distrust and hostility caused by the intransigence of people in Whitehall, of which he was a senior part, who refused to accept the advice of the people at the sharp end.

"We were getting this very rigid and inflexible approach from the centre which caused months of unnecessary anguish.

"That said, whoever has that job is not in an enviable position - it is a very tough job."

Dr Scudamore's successor will have responsibility for implementing the Government's new animal health and welfare strategy and for dealing with any future outbreaks of animal disease.

In a detailed job description the recruitment consultants concede that few people are likely to have the skills and stomach for what is a "tough, high profile role".

Dr Scudamore has held the post of chief vet since 1997 when he was charged with dealing with the fallout from the BSE crisis