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Search under way for source of disease

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Andrew Bushe

DUBLIN — As the experts remain mystified by the spread of foot-and-mouth disease to County Louth, a hunt is continuing for smuggled livestock, particularly sheep, that have been illegally brought in from Northern Ireland and Britain.

Investigators north and south of the Irish border are trying to track down suspicious flocks that might have been smuggled in by rogue farmers and dealers.

More than 700 farms south of the border are restricted as a result of the investigation and precautionary culling has been undertaken on some of them despite no new animals showing symptoms of the disease.

Up to 60 sheep may remain missing and undeclared after being imported as part of scams involving higher prices, tax allowances and EU payouts.

Both Agriculture Minister Joe Walsh and his Northern Ireland counterpart, Brid Rodgers, fear there may be another still unknown intermediate infection between the Meigh, Co. Armagh, case confirmed on March 1 and the Cooley outbreak confirmed in County Louth on March 22.

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Walsh described the Cooley outbreak as a mystery. "We are baffled by it," he said.

He said the farm was self-contained and that the landowner was an "upright man" who is cooperating with the investigation.

"They didn’t buy in sheep," Walsh said. "The flock was self-contained, yet infectivity occurred. The question is, where is the source of infectivity?

"It is very much in our interests to find that source because we don’t know if the virus is incubating somewhere that we don’t know about."

A significant trade in cross-border smuggled livestock has emerged as a problem since the disease crisis began. The Republic has rushed emergency laws through the Oireachtas to deal with it.

"All possibilities are being looked at, but we are none the wiser yet. Nothing is being ruled out," according to an agriculture department spokesman.

"It could have been spread on the wind or could have moved through non-susceptible wildlife in the area, as there are a lot of goats and deer on the Cooley Peninsula," he said.

There are eight million sheep in Ireland and any animals brought in from the UK and Northern Ireland among them have to be being sampled and tested.

Walsh said that until there is new evidence, the government is working on the assumption that it was a "contiguous or secondary" case connected with the Armagh infection.

"We don’t know if there is an intermediate case or not. That is the most worrying aspect of the present position," he said.

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