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Government moves fast to contain foot-and-mouth spread

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Andrew Bushe

DUBLIN — A scorched-earth policy involving the slaughtering of all surrounding healthy livestock is under way in the Cooley Peninsula in County Louth in an effort to contain the first case of foot-and-mouth disease in the country for 60 years.

Announcing last Thursday that two cases had been confirmed in sheep, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern described it as "a major disappointment, given the intensity of the efforts by all sectors of society to keep the disease out of Ireland."

Sheep with suspicious symptoms were found on the farm during an inspection on Tuesday, March 20. The animals had also been examined several times before — including the previous Friday — and had been clear of symptoms.

A standby plan to seal off the area went into operation after the confirmation was given by a UK laboratory that had tested samples.

Vets culled 138 sheep on the farm on March 20 and placed a restriction on the farm and surrounding area. A major control center had been established at the beginning of the month close by the outbreak at Ballymascanlon, outside Dundalk.

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Devastated farmers are suffering the loss of generations of carefully nurtured bloodlines as thousands of cattle and sheep are being culled and the land denuded in a desperate attempt to contain the virus.

Confirmation that the disease had been found in County Louth is the "doomsday" situation the Irish government has feared since it introduced wide-ranging controls on Feb. 21 in an effort to keep it out of the country.

As the disease spread quickly through Britain and also turned up in France and Holland, there had been optimism the "fortress Ireland" policy would protect the country’s disease-free status

Ahern confirmed that the country’s luck had run out to a hushed and shocked Dail.

Irish Farmers Association president Tom Parlon said it was "a major body blow to the whole country."

Agriculture Minister Joe Walsh said the arrival of the virus was a "shattering blow."

Before leaving a European summit in Stockholm early to chair a meeting of the special emergency committee dealing with the crisis, Ahern asked British Prime Minister Tony Blair to tighten restrictions and disinfectant controls at ferry ports with Ireland.

Britain’s disease epidemic has spiraled out of control and is now worse than the 1967 outbreak, when 442,000 animals were culled.

Blair’s top advisers have warned the crisis there may not peak until May or June and will continue until August or September. It may mean that half of all the UK’s livestock will have to be put down.

The government’s immediate concerns are unknown outbreaks that may already exist in the country as a result of smuggled animals or infection through the air across the Irish Sea from Wales or Cumbria in the northwest of England, which has been particularly badly hit.

"You worry about the airborne issues, you worry about the winds, you worry about all sorts of things. There is huge concern here," Ahern said.

Walsh said the preemptive slaughter of healthy livestock may be extended this week when advice is received from veterinary experts on both sides of the border.

"What we are trying to do is to get ahead of the disease with aggressive culling before the disease takes hold," Walsh said.

"In the UK it appears that there was quite a lot of activity and quite a lot of transport of susceptible animals before they got down to the real business of getting ahead of the disease."

He said the draconian controls in place around the country since February were "bound to be an advantage in seeking to contain this dreadful plague."

When the disease was confirmed, vets first slaughtered all animals within a kilometer radius of the farm and they then moved to cull livestock from farms within a three-kilometer zone.

The initial culls 13,000 sheep and 3,000 cattle.

The next stage may involve killing right up to the border and extending the clearout of healthy animals further into Louth.

The whole county is now sealed off from the rest of the country by gardai and troops, with checkpoints on all roads.

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