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Foot-and-mouth cripples Britain

As foot-and-mouth disease advances rapidly through Britain and Europe, the panic is not only in rural communities: tourist destinations and even daily commuters are feeling the impact of the disease’s alarming spread. By Preston Mendenhall
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The pride and profit of the Poldean Farm met a bloody end early Wednesday, when Scottish cattle breeder William Davidson watched his championship herd shot to death after contracting foot-and-mouth disease. “It’s like losing members of your family,” he said. But as foot-and-mouth disease advances rapidly through Britain and Europe, the panic is not only in rural communities anymore: Tourist destinations and even daily commuters are feeling the impact of the disease’s alarming spread.

LIKE HUNDREDS of farmers across Britain, Davidson, 50, is devastated. His farm, which stretches over some 2,000 acres of rolling southern Scotland countryside, saw an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease on a neighboring farm quickly infect its own livestock.

“The whole farm, 500 cattle and 1,500 sheep, is finished today,” Davidson said in a phone interview. “We shot the cattle. We will burn them later. And the sheep are next.”

Davidson described his whole family as an emotional wreck. “My wife was crying; I shed tears myself,” he said, after sleeping only two hours over the past two days.

The Davidson’s bread and butter — a prized line of French pedigree cattle, carefully bred over the last decade — were gone within hours of the outbreak on his farm. “It is very emotional. You work seven days a week with these animals and it’s painful to see them suffering,” he said of the effects of foot-and-mouth disease, which is not harmful to humans but attacks livestock with painful sores and blisters and can be spread by shoes, car tires and even wind. The quickest way to stop the disease is by mass culls of infected herds and, the immediate quarantine of people who might have come into contact with the disease.

In Britain, the government has so far been praised for its quick actions to try to limit the spread of the disease, which last hit the country in 1967. But the frequent roadblocks, human quarantines, travel warnings and sports competition cancellations are beginning to take their toll on the general population.

Stores and pubs in rural areas across Britain have seen business plummet 33 percent since the government imposed a ban on movement two weeks ago in an attempt to help prevent the spread of the disease.


As British tourist destinations were gearing up for spring and summer visitors, the country’s national park authority sent out this notice to visitors: “Unless your visit is essential, do not visit the Lake District,” Britain’s land of poets and one of the most popular destinations for foreign visitors.

On Wednesday, the Cumbria Tourist Board, which oversees tourism in the Lake District, called an emergency meeting of all staff, according to an answering machine message at its headquarters. Famous for its lakeside and and mountain walks, one Lake District town is now handing out brochures for a “tarmac walk” along roads that do not pass through closed forest paths and lake shores, British newspapers reported.

Some government estimates put the loss to the British tourist trade at more than $300 million a week on the eve of the usually sold out Easter holidays.

Tourists returning home from Britain and Britons traveling abroad are now required to step in disinfecting liquid in airports from New York to Sydney. Such measures are expected to increase as more countries ban the import of European meat.

On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman told NBC’s “Today” show that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is working with airlines in Europe to ask passengers to clean their shoes and clothing before traveling to the United States. “We’ve been getting out the word to people to be careful if you’ve been in the countryside or on a farm in Europe,” Veneman said.

Thousands of British school children living in rural areas have been quarantined in their homes for fear of spreading the disease.


But it is British farms that have been hit hardest by the foot-and-mouth outbreak. Officials are monitoring many families for depression and in some cases requesting that farmers hand over any guns until the crisis can be contained. From 1991 to 1996, one farmer committed suicide every 11 days on average, according to government statistics.

InsertArt(965866)In the last month, help lines set up by charities and farmers associations have been flooded with calls from distraught farmers.

On the Poldean Farm in Scotland, the foot-and-mouth outbreak has split the family — literally. Farmer Davidson’s youngest daughter has been home from school for weeks, like the rest of the family living under official quarantine.

Davidson’s oldest son, who studies in Edinburgh, can’t come home for Easter vacation because he would not be able to return to his studies after setting foot on the farm.

While the foot-and-mouth outbreak has brought farmers together, tripling phone bills since no neighborly visits are permitted, the future, Davidson said, is uncertain.

“I would like to be here farming for the rest of my life. It’s my hobby, my love and my profession,” he said. “But most farmers are at the end of their tether. They are frightened for the future.” International Editor Preston Mendenhall is based in London.