`Overkill' on sheep cull attacked

FOOT-AND-MOUTH experts claim that more than half the sheep slaughtered in Wales in the foot-and-mouth crisis were killed unnecessarily.

Almost 350,000 animals, including 304,847 sheep, have been slaughtered on infected premises, contiguous farms and as dangerous contacts in Wales.

But Dr Paul Kitching, who was head of Pirbright Laboratory until May, has said it is impossible to diagnose foot-and-mouth disease in sheep from visual signs alone. And Dr Ruth Watkins, a former head of the diagnostic virology laboratory at St Mary's Hospital, yesterday said she believed at least half the sheep slaughtered in Wales need not have been killed.

"I fully agree with Dr Kitching.

There are very few infections and illnesses where you can be absolutely sure clinically," said Dr Watkins.

She said vets who saw clinical symptoms of foot-and-mouth disease should have sent specimens to laboratories for diagnosis. The suspect sheep could have been kept in quarantine on home farms while the results came.

"An attempt should have been made to confirm the diagnoses as there can be a whole number of reasons why sheep can have ulceration in the mouth. "I would like to know how many of the 118 cases in Wales were diagnosed on clinical symptoms in sheep and how many of these were actually confirmed positive by laboratory testing.

"I think the answer is likely to be that there wasn't really that much infection and that over half the sheep slaughtered in Wales need not have been," said Dr Watkins. The slaughter policy based on visual symptoms alone had caused untold misery for farmers. "The affected farm was slaughtered, which led to other farms being slaughtered and still more being subject to Form D notices. If more resources had been put into diagnostic laboratories and they had been used properly, I'm sure a lot of this would not have been necessary."

A National Assembly spokeswoman said all animals confirmed as having the disease were initially confirmed on clinical signs. She said, "Vets finding symptoms of foot-and-mouth disease contacted the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) veterinary service, which decided whether the disease should be confirmed or not." She could not say how many of the 118 cases in Wales were confirmed on visual symptoms or how many subsequently proved negative.

"The priority has always been to eradicate the disease and the policy that was adopted has proved successful."

Alan Morris, of the Farmers' Union of Wales, said, "It was a time of severe crisis and difficult decisions had to be made. But we are still pressing for a full public inquiry so all the diverse views can be heard and we can see whether the right decisions were taken."

Leigh Roberts, of NFU Cymru, said, "That mistakes were made in dealing with foot-and-mouth disease there is a little doubt. That is why we need a full and independent public inquiry."