By James Lyons, Political Correspondent, PA News

Culling animals on farms neighbouring those struck by foot-and-mouth helped prevent an even greater slaughter of animals, a Government adviser insisted today. The epidemic had "totally devastated" the countryside, Professor Roy Anderson admitted.

"But it could have been far, far worse," he told the Commons Select committee on the environment, food and agriculture.

His remarks were branded "unproven and possibly provocative" by David Taylor, Labour MP for North West Leicestershire.

But Prof Anderson insisted that the contiguous cull policy was the best way to contain the outbreak - and had saved animals lives.

"It required speedy and draconian action," said the Professor, who advised the Government on fighting the disease.

The speed with which the disease spread meant the consequences of any delay were huge, as the impact of the Government's hesitation in imposing a livestock movement ban showed, he said.

"It seems ludicrous to say that a three day delay from February 20 to February 23 was critical but it was," he said.

Vaccination had been considered but the time it took to immunise animals and the problem of providing enough jabs made it impractical, he told MPs.

"It was a very reluctant decision because I think everybody would have liked to have used different routes if there had been another effective route," he added.

Earlier Professor David King, the Government's chief scientific adviser, said the slaughter of healthy animals on neighbouring farms was the price that had to be paid for eradicating the disease.

"The only way you are going to get ahead of the outbreak is to get to the next virus factory before it comes in," he said.

Farms bordering those with foot-and-mouth had a 17% chance of the disease developing in their animals, he said.

That meant that 83% would not, but by the time you knew which ones would, it was too late, the professor told MPs.

The need for culling was shown by the fact that half of all outbreaks occurred on farms neighbouring those that had already been infected, he said.

"If you want to bring it under control there is a sacrifice," he told the committee.

The 24 hour and 48 hour deadlines for slaughtering infected animals and those on neighbouring farms were not always reached, he admitted.

But he insisted: "There is a mountain of evidence to show that the policy we were pursuing, although never carried out perfectly, brought it under control."

Professor King predicted the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs would have to spend much more on scientific research in the future.

The exact amount would have to be determined by the scientific advisor who is about to be appointed, he said.

However, he also said: "BSE, swine fever and foot-and-mouth indicates that we need perhaps a greater level of scientific research to back up the work of the department than we have had."