Ministers' pledge over farm virus

Farming minister Lord Rooker (pictured) pledged to act quickly to lift the ban on livestock movements in Norfolk and Suffolk amid growing animal welfare concerns.

Farming minister Lord Rooker last night pledged to act quickly to lift the ban on livestock movements in Norfolk and Suffolk amid growing animal welfare concerns.

The minister met East Anglian farmers' leaders in Newmarket as a fourth case of bluetongue disease was confirmed on a south Suffolk farm.

He was told the news that a cow on a third farm in the county at Washbrook, near Ipswich, had tested positive for the midge-borne disease in the middle of a 75-minute meeting with livestock producers.

In a separate development, the National Farmers' Union announced last night that hundreds of its members have joined a legal fight to sue the government for compensation as a result of the latest foot-and-mouth outbreaks caused by leaks from the publicly-owned Pirbright laboratories. And NFU president, Peter Kendall, was described as “furious” at the mounting costs and losses to the farming industry caused by the seven outbreaks of the disease.

And Defra last night imposed a temporary control zone around a farm at Maidenhead, Berkshire, as another suspected case of foot-and-mouth was investigated.

But in five days, four cases on bluetongue have been confirmed all involving cattle on Suffolk farms.

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John Collen, chairman of Suffolk NFU, who was at the same meeting with Lord Rooker, thought that more cases of the disease found in cattle, sheep and goats could emerge. “I wouldn't be surprised to see more isolated cases,” he added.

It was also confirmed yesterday that the Holstein cow at Ron and Judith Hill's Beehive Farm, Lound, near Lowestoft, was infected with the same BTV 8 strain - already responsible for about 4,000 cases in outbreaks across Belgium, northern France, Holland Germany this year.

Bluetongue, which is spread by midges carrying the virus and then infecting ruminant animals, was first confirmed in a Highland cow, Debbie, at the Baylham Rare Breed Farms, near Ipswich, last Saturday. She was slaughtered and then a second animal, an Old Gloucester at the same farm, became the second victim.

The nine representatives at the National Farmers' Union's regional office complained of confusion with one arm of Defra not aware of its own regulations. And leading Norfolk dairy farmer, William Brigham, said at one stage even Lord Rooker seemed confused by some of his department's rulings.

“There is no definitive answer about what you can and can't do,” said Mr Brigham, who is regional chairman of the NFU milk board and farms at Lyng, near Dereham.

“Everybody is confused about it. It needs clarifying and putting down in proper black and white.”

NFU officials are today due to meet Defra's divisional veterinary manager and animal health officials at Bury St Edmunds to resolve some of the complexities.

Lord Rooker was also urged to help the livestock industry and reduce the potential for more cases of bluetongue by allowing animals to be moved from low-lying traditional grazing marshes.

Farmers warned Lord Rooker of an impending animal welfare disaster as all livestock movements of cattle and sheep were banned in Norfolk and Suffolk as part of the bluetongue controls. “It is a big problem. We've moving up to a big welfare problem if we don't look out. The key issue is welfare and it is a ticking time-bomb, said Mr Brigham.

Since Defra's Debby Reynolds placed Norfolk and Suffolk in a bluetongue area, all movement of ruminant animals from farm to farm have been banned. And animals can only be sent to slaughter to plants in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex.

Mr Kendall said: “When I hear stories of milk having to be poured away, calves assembled for export having to be slaughtered and high quality breeding pigs unable to be shipped, I am not just dismayed, I am furious.”

Shadow environment secretary Peter Ainsworth said: “After four confirmed cases, the government should now make clear on what basis they will declare an official outbreak of bluetongue.”

However, Defra insisted last night: “At this stage, there is not sufficient evidence to confirm an active outbreak of bluetongue as it cannot yet be demonstrated that the disease is circulating. Epidemiological investigations are on-going to establish whether bluetongue disease is circulating in the UK.”

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