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11:00 - 23 September 2004
Thousands of animals slaughtered on Westcountry farms during the foot and mouth epidemic were killed unnecessarily, according to a former Government vet.

Dr Nick Honhold, a vet for the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) during the 2001 outbreak, said the contiguous culling of cattle in an attempt to control the spread of the disease didn't work.

The controversial policy - in which healthy livestock were slaughtered because they were on farms adjacent to ones that were infected by the disease - was heavily criticised by farmers and farming leaders at the time.

They claimed in many cases there was no evidence the animals slaughtered could have come into contact with the disease and that the contiguous cull was "unnecessary and unjustified".

This has now been supported by Dr Honhold, who used data from Defra's own databases and found "no evidence" that the contiguous cull helped to hasten the end of the outbreak.

He believes that, to stop the spread of the disease, infected animals should have been slaughtered faster.

Dr Honhold, who worked in Carlisle during the crisis, told the WMN: "At one point it was taking eight days between a case being reported and the animal being killed. That is far too long and all the vets knew it."

During the outbreak the contiguous cull was described by Anthony Gibson, the regional director for the South West National Farmers' Union (NFU) as "one of the most bloody, tragic and disgraceful misjudgements made in the name of science".

Dr Honhold's findings came as no surprise to David Hill, who was Devon NFU chairman during the crisis.

Mr Hill, whose farm in West Devon narrowly escaped being included in the contiguous cull, said Dr Honhold's comments supported everything he had ever said about the contiguous cull.

"I always said the contiguous cull was irrelevant and unnecessary and based on nothing but the definition of the word contiguous, which was completely crazy," said Mr Hill, who added that it was a "miracle" his own farm escaped the cull when so many nearby were included.

"The contiguous cull was a mathematical exercise based on a mathematical model, which upset me at the time and upsets me now. The number of animals killed to satisfy a mathematical model was horrendous."

Mr Hill said the contiguous cull process was flawed because it did not take into account a wide range of factors linked to the spread of foot and mouth disease including wind direction, distance between farms, whether there was tree cover between properties and whether there was water between them.

"It was in my view just a desperate attempt to follow a mathematical model, which the Government were provided with," he said.

"I am sure that when someone first used the word contiguous in connection with the cull, nobody meant it to be followed quite so closely. Contiguous is a word loved by lawyers because it is so precise in its meaning of something touching or being in contact.

"Because the Government followed that meaning so closely it multiplied many times over the number of animals killed and the cost of dealing with the foot and mouth epidemic."

Around ten million animals were slaughtered during the epidemic, two thirds of which were killed in the contiguous cull. The total cost of the crisis was more than 8 billion.

Dr Honhold, a veterinary epidemiologist who now works for the Department for Agriculture and Rural Development in Belfast, makes his claims in an article published in the latest edition of the Veterinary Record.

He writes: "The outcome of our research suggests that the necessity for an extensive and intensive contiguous cull was not as it seemed to be at the time of the outbreak, when it was claimed to be essential for the control of the epidemic."

Dr Honhold says the research concentrated on the three areas in England which had the largest numbers of clustered infected premises during the outbreak, the South West, Cumbria and the Settle/Clitheroe area.

Dr Honhold says the research proves the most effective way to control the disease was to slaughter the infected animals quickly and not to target healthy cattle in surrounding areas.

He says the disease could only spread from infected farms because there is no other reservoir in nature for the virus.

Dr Honhold also criticises the "models" the Government used to try to accurately predict how the disease would spread.

He said: "The models assumed the disease would spread in straight lines, but it didn't. There was pressure on the vets to predict where the disease would travel but the models were not working."

Defra have admitted "some shortcomings" in the approach to the control of the disease.

A spokesman for the department said: "Defra accepts that no model is perfect, and that subsequently some shortcomings have been identified with the contiguous cull model. However modelling is still a valuable tool."

Dr Honhold has called on the Government to "learn from their mistakes" and to adopt new policies to combat any future outbreaks.

He said: "What happened, happened. But we need to change our policies because this could be with us again tomorrow."

On a recent foot and mouth simulation exercise in Cornwall, Animal Health Minister Ben Bradshaw said he could not "rule out" a contiguous cull being used during a future outbreak.