Farmers in the UK are attempting to get back to work today after restrictions on the movement of animals in the wake of the foot and mouth outbreak were relaxed.
The collection of dead animals and the movement of animals directly from farms to slaughterhouses was permissible under licence from today, following an announcement by the British Government’s chief veterinary officer Debby Reynolds.
The relaxation on restrictions came despite the announcement that livestock on a third farm adjacent to one of the previously infected premises was being culled on suspicion of foot and mouth.
The ban on all other movements of susceptible animals still remains in place.
The move to ease restrictions follows similar decisions by the Welsh and Scottish governments.
It has been welcomed by the National Farmers’ Union, which said it was an important step towards getting the industry functioning again.
NFU president Peter Kendall said: “This is a measured and very necessary first step on the road towards getting the industry back to normal and maintaining supplies of home-produced meat to consumers, but it should not be taken in any way as a signal that we can afford to drop our guard.
“It is as vital as ever that livestock farmers remain vigilant, check their stock regularly and report anything suspicious immediately.
“The highest possible standards of bio-security must be maintained.”
He said the next step under discussion was to introduce arrangements that would allow animals to be moved on welfare grounds, subject to appropriate safeguards.
A combination of cows, sheep, pigs and goats belonging to Hunts Hill Farm – a third farm adjacent to one of the previously infected premises – at the village of Normandy, Surrey, are to be destroyed.
A resident said the farm was a “small family concern” which belonged to the Emerson family who sell its products at a local farmers’ market.
Police taped off the property as vets began the grim task of slaughtering the animals.
Dr Reynolds also confirmed that the strain of virus found on the second farm was the same as that discovered on the first.
Explaining the reasons for the relaxation, Dr Reynolds said: “The ban on the movement on foot and mouth-susceptible animals remains in place across the UK.
“However, the decision has been made to permit the movement of live animals direct to slaughter and the collection of dead animals.
“These movements will be made under general licence and will only apply outside the protection and surveillance zones.”
She said only abattoirs which met stringent biosecurity conditions would be permitted to accept livestock for slaughter.
Asked if she believed the situation was now under control, Dr Reynolds said that it was still “very early”.
“We have got two infected premises and a new premise that has been culled on suspicion.
“The risk of spread outside is low but not negligible,” she said.
Abattoirs are expected to be up and running today and, as a result, consumers should not see any difference in the provision of meat in shops and supermarkets.
The English Beef and Lamb Executive (EBLEX) said the decision would come as a great relief to farmers and those involved in the supply of beef and lamb.
EBLEX chairman John Cross said: “From day one of this crisis, EBLEX has focused its efforts on the need to ensure both our domestic and export markets are given the necessary support to ensure a rapid return to ’business as usual’ - although this will inevitably take some time.”
Shadow environment secretary Peter Ainsworth welcomed the limited relaxation of the movement ban but said the news that further culling was to take place was a “bitter blow” to the farmer concerned.
He added: “I am disappointed that the Government – unlike the Administration in Scotland – is still refusing to permit on-farm burial of sheep and other smaller animals.
“On-farm burial would be quicker, and more efficient than waiting for dead animals to be collected, and would limit unnecessary movement.
Liberal Democrat spokesman Roger Williams said: “If the risk assessment suggests that it is safe to move animals to slaughter, then that is excellent news for farmers up and down the country.
MEP Neil Parish, chairman of the European Parliament’s agriculture committee, said: “This outbreak has been a body blow for British farming and it is imperative we get cattle moving as soon as it is safe to do so.
“The European Union was right to take a cautious approach to this outbreak in the beginning, but farmers will question the decision of the EU standing committee to put off meeting again for another fortnight.
“The European Commission has to balance safety concerns against the long-term damage this export ban is causing the whole agricultural industry in Britain, and I think the committee should review the situation again in a week at the latest.”