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The Guardian
Monday January 21, 2002,
By Peter Hetherington, Regional Affairs Editor

Hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money could have been lost through the arbitrary slaughter of sheep and cattle during the foot and mouth crisis and the misdiagnosis of animals by inexperienced foreign vets, according to evidence to a public inquiry into the seven-month epidemic.

Although confined to Northumberland, the first county to contract the disease and the last to be finally cleared last week, the inquiry chairman also suggested that government figures putting the final death toll at 6m animals was a considerable underestimate.

With the National Farmers' Union claiming in a report today that the government let the recent outbreak spiral out of control, leading to 8,000 farmers and labourers losing their jobs, the Northumberland county council inquiry findings will add to allegations of an official cover-up.

Although the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) refused to appear at the inquiry, preferring instead to reply to a series of questions in a letter, its chairman, Michael Dower, questioned the official death toll of 235,000 in the county. "It may be a significant underestimate because it excluded lambs and calves," he said.

He added: "The evidence in general is pointing to big questions about whether it was truly necessary to slaughter this vast amount of stock, a significant proportion of which were healthy when killed."

This leads to the belief that government compensation to farmers for lost animals, which has been estimated at 1.4bn, could have been considerably less if ministers had authorised a more selective culling policy.

The five-day inquiry, which heard from a string of rural specialists, farmers and countryside groups, was significant because a vet who had worked for Defra broke the silence of her profession - some vets had to sign the Official Secrets Act during the outbreak - and said many of her colleagues questioned the policy of contiguous culling, which accounted for the majority of animals slaughtered.

"I did not agree with the contiguous cull," said Helen O'Hare, a locum vet. "Nor did many other vets."

She told the hearing 16,000 animals were slaughtered needlessly after an American vet inspected a farm in the Allendale area when foot and mouth unexpectedly broke out again in the county late last August.

He found animals with blisters in their mouths, could not get a second opinion quickly enough, and Defra ordered an immediate slaughter. "The farmer had been spreading lime on the fields and that had caused the blisters in the animals' mouths," she said.

That apparent misdiagnosis led to 4,000 sheep being slaughtered on the farm as well as 12,000 others on contiguous farms. But it also raised questions about decisions elsewhere, since, according to Ms O'Hare, many of the foreign vets imported to deal with the outbreak were inexperienced with large animals. They were, she said, not aware of British sheep conditions, such as orf and foot rot, which had similar symptoms to foot and mouth.

After the inquiry, Ms O'Hare further questioned government statistics. "They were certainly playing with figures before the election," she claimed. By reclassifying some animals as "slaughtered on suspicion", rather than coming from "infected premises", she said, the outbreak was made to look "much smaller".

The inquiry also heard that the sites of foot and mouth pyres in Northumberland are being dug up and the ash taken to landfill sites because of fears over BSE.

One site on the Belsay estate, where about 1,000 cattle were burned, had to be dug up on the orders of the environment agency because the incinerated animals were over 30 months old, and consequently most at risk from BSE.

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