CULL DESCRIBED AS "GROSS, UNJUSTIFIED AND WASTEFUL"

Cumberland and Westmorland Herald

"A gross, unjustified and wasteful appropriation of private property, supposedly in the national interest," was how an Eden farmer described the slaughter of animals during last year's FMD outbreak when he gave evidence to the public inquiry into the crisis in Cumbria.

Speaking on Tuesday, Tom Lowther of Whitbysteads, Askham, said the slaughter policy had left Britain with a national herd and flock which were as susceptible to foot and mouth as they had been before the outbreak, yet nothing had been done to stop the disease entering the country again.

He compared this with the successful use of vaccination in Uruguay, where 10 million cattle were vaccinated within one and a half months of an outbreak last year. Exports from the country had been allowed to resume within six months. "Sheep were so low risk they did not even bother vaccinating them," he added.

FATAL MISTAKE

The first "fatal mistake" the authorities in Britain made when dealing with the crisis, he claimed, was that they had not banned internal livestock movements straight away. He said: "Longtown, Penrith and Carlisle is the greatest clearing house of stock in the country. Movements should have been banned on the day before the sale at Longtown, which would have stopped it spreading all over the country."

He described the cull of sheep on premises within three kilometres of infected premises as a "supreme act of folly", saying cattle had been much more to blame than sheep for the continued spread of the virus. Although admitting that sheep had been largely responsible for the initial spread of FMD from Longtown, he maintained this had happened because those animals had been highly stressed and transported in close proximity, making them much more susceptible to the disease.

He said:" The role of sheep in the further spread of FMD was much over played. The lungs of cattle are 17 times larger than those of sheep and they give out virus over a much longer period. The 3km cull was doomed to failure from the start - MAFF killed the wrong species." He added that another aspect of the 3km cull which had demonstrated "mind boggling stupidity" was the transport of live sheep across Cumbria to the Gt Orton burial site in open livestock trailers, risking a further spread of the disease if any of the animals did have FMD. "They should have put these resources into blood testing, which did not come in until 6th of June," he said.

Mr Lowther also said the 3km cull had not been perceived by farmers as being "voluntary", since many who had declined to let their stock go had been told the animals would be treated as "dangerous contacts" and slaughtered despite their opposition.

He suggested that milk tankers might have been responsible for spreading the virus, possibly internally rather than on the outside of vehicles where disinfectant was applied. On the subject of disinfectant, he said many farmers, himself among them, had used citric acid, while some bodies had used alkaline solutions which could have neutralised the acid.

FAILURE OF SCIENTISTS

He also condemned the failure of MAFF scientists to take up the quick diagnosis equipment that had been offered to them at the beginning of the outbreak.

Reference to the 3km cull was also made by county NFU chairman Will Cockbain of Rakefoot Farm, Keswick, who told the inquiry that chief vet Jim Scudamore had justified the slaughter by claiming the sheep flock was "heavily infected", although MAFF had failed to produce any evidence at the time to support this.

According to Mr Cockbain, the results of blood tests carried out at Gt Orton had only been revealed to him a short time before the inquiry and these had shown that sheep from 115 farms had been tested. Sheep from only one farm had tested positive, with one additional "mild positive" and three "inconclusive". "This shows that Jim Scudamore's initial reason for the 3km cull was wrong," he said.

Earlier in the day, the inquiry had heard that many farmers had been confused in the early part of the crisis by MAFF's refusal to disclose to the media where individual outbreaks had been confirmed. Instead, it was only said there had been outbreaks in various parishes, leaving people to guess which farms had been hit.

There had also been confusion, it was said, over the scale of the crisis, with one official saying it was "under control" while another spoke of bringing in more vets.

Gordon Swindlehurst, of BBC Radio Cumbria, said: "No pressure was put on me not to say something, but obtaining information was like getting blood from a stone."

BLACK HOLE

He added: " The big problem for Cumbria was Page Street's distance from here - it became like a black hole. Any information which went in simply disappeared."

A meeting of the inquiry is due to take place at Appleby public hall on Wednesday, starting at 7 pm, when anybody who wishes to tell the inquiry panel about their experiences during the crisis or about how outbreaks can be prevented in future will be welcome to speak.

Transcripts from the meeting will form part of the formal evidence of the inquiry and, in addition, comment forms will be available for those who wish to add to what has been said.

The meeting will follow a day during which the panel will visit locations in the Eden area to see at first hand the impact foot and mouth had on all aspects of life.

PUBLIC MEETINGS

Three other public meetings in the county are to be held: at the Oval Centre, Salterbeck, Workington, on Monday, at Ulverston Coronation Hall on Tuesday and at Longtown memorial hall on Thursday.

There will also be another formal hearing at Carlisle between 28th-31st May and this will follow a similar format to the session at Kendal.

It is anticipated that the inquiry report will be published in July.