A third case of foot-and-mouth disease in three days in a region which was virus-free for months was tonight fuelling fears that other farms could be infected.
‘‘Draconian’’ new controls were imposed on a 400 square mile area in Northumberland, England after the third case was confirmed in a bid to stop the virus gaining a stronger grip.
The move came amid fears that it could already be too late and other farms in the county - which was disease-free for three months - could already be infected.
National Farmers’ Union North East director Richard Ellison said: ‘‘We fear there are going to be more, it’s showing that sort of pattern.
‘‘It is not looking good. They have suspicions it has already reached other farms.’’
Mr Ellison said it was still not known how the virus spread to the three farms, all within about five miles of each other and close to the town of Hexham.
‘‘People are very concerned, everyone’s on tenterhooks, and for the farmers involved the slaughters have begun. It’s a very traumatic time,’’ he said.
An investigation is continuing into how many other farms could be facing culls as dangerous or contiguous contacts.
The fresh cases were a double blow to the community, where the original case of the disease was confirmed in February, more than six months ago, as animal movement restrictions in the area were expected to be lifted within weeks.
Instead, tougher restrictions known as ‘‘Blue Box’’ measures have come into force across a 400 square mile area.
The regulations include the withdrawal of all licences for animal movement, and stringent bio-security being enforced at farms, including disinfectant foot baths and sprays.
All footpaths in the area have been closed and milk tankers deliveries will have an escort from the Department of Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra).
Police and Defra officials will also patrol to ensure that no animals are being moved illegally, and that cleansing and bio-security measures are being used.
Two of the affected farmers were said to have bought animals from Hexham market, which has said it will not open on Tuesday. Vets stressed that the closure was not an indication of how the disease reached the area.
Divisional veterinary manager Arthur Griffiths said the new control measures ‘‘may seem to be draconian’’, but they were vital to ensure the outbreak was short-lived.
He said the third case was ‘‘very disappointing’’ but not unexpected, as the cattle farm lay between the two farms previously infected.
‘‘We are continuing our investigations to determine the source of this and the other recent outbreaks but it is likely to be the movement of animals, vehicles or people,’’ he said.
The latest cases and another outbreak confirmed today in Cumbria brings the total number of outbreaks to 1,974.
Keith Raine, a director at the Newcastle Disease Emergency Control Centre (DECC), said: ‘‘This third blow within as many days is more devastating news for farmers in this part of Northumberland, and the staff at the DECC who have worked so hard over recent months to keep the disease at bay.
‘‘We are putting all of our efforts into ensuring that we get on top of this new outbreak quickly in order to stop the spread of the disease.’’