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Foot and mouth disease

(Photograph) - They are killed by a single shot to the head, their carcasses dumped into long, low trenches, which are piled high with railway sleepers, doused with petrol, and burned.

It's a hellish vision. But scenes like this are taking place right now all over Britain.

Large areas of the countryside are out of bounds, closed down to stop the spread of disease. And when the epidemic is over, whenever that may be, it will look very different. The hillsides will be still and the farmyards strangely silent. And in the killing fields will lie the charred remains of half a million animals.

Most of these animals don't have foot and mouth disease, they are being slaughtered as a precaution. Left alone, 95 per cent of those that do catch it would recover within two or three weeks, although some may suffer fertility problems and lameness.

But animals are not the priority. Think of the money. foot and mouth makes these animals uneconomic - they lose weight and their milk yield goes down. The more of them that catch it, the more it will cost us. And it is costing farmers, hoteliers and hauliers millions of pounds already. What price an animal's life against a human's livelihood?

Newspapers illustrate the disease's spread on pockmarked maps, inky blisters marking each new outbreak, thickening to a rash across the north-west and south-west of England. Men in white overalls, ministry officials, wander like ghosts among the dead, monitoring these grotesque barbecues.

We think of plagues as something from a bygone age. The Black Death wiped out a third of the population in the 14th century; the Great Plague of 1665 spread fom town to town, leaving hundreds of thousands dead.

Although the bubonic plague happened dozens of generations ago, the story has been passed on easily. It's a catchy tune and children still sing it, dancing round in circles as they recount the useless deterrent (a pocket full of posies) the first signs (atishoo, atishoo) and the fatal effects.

While the facility with which foot and mouth spreads is impressive, this epidemic will not be remembered that way. Unlike the human form of BSE, foot and mouth does not kill us. It is a mild disease in humans, like a dose of the flu, and difficult for us to catch - the last case in the UK was in 1966.

Modern viruses are everywhere - in our computers, in our blood, in the air we breathe, the food we eat and the food we feed our animals. And they travel more quickly. The 1967 foot and mouth outbreak was largely contained within Shropshire, Cheshire and Wales, because in those days animals were raised, killed and sold locally. Live animals are now routinely transported across and between countries.

In economic terms, larger slaughterhouses bring economies of scale, because they can turn out more carcasses at a lower unit cost. The Government justifies the slaughter policy because "widespread disease throughout the country would be economically disastrous". Meat may be cheaper these days - but at what price? And who's paying?

Harvey McGavin. Photograph by Murdo MacLeod.

Weblinks: FAQs about foot and mouth www.maff.gov.ukanimalh diseasesfmdqa1.htm

The Great Plague www.angelfire.combiz4joshmblackdeath.html

Compassion in World Farming www.ciwf.co.uk

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