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Foot and mouth disease found in cattle on UK farm

LONDON (Reuters) - Foot and mouth disease has been found in cattle on a British farm, the government said on Friday as it banned livestock movements to prevent a repeat of a 2001 outbreak that blighted farming and rural tourism.

File photo of a digger placing cows and sheep on a pile during the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak in Britain. REUTERS/Jeff J. Mitchell

Infected livestock were found on a farm near Guildford, close to London, and all cattle on the farm were being culled, the agriculture department Defra said.

Officials immediately halted movements of pigs and ruminant animals such as cows and sheep across the United Kingdom to stop the spread of the disease and set up a 10-km (six-mile) surveillance zone around the farm.

The disease causes high fevers and blisters in cloven-hoofed animals and can often lead to death. It can be contracted by cattle, pigs, sheep and goats, but very rarely by people.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown took part by telephone in an emergency meeting of officials on Friday evening from southern England, where he began a holiday on Friday.

He will cut short his break in Dorset and return to London on Saturday to chair another meeting of the emergency committee, COBRA, a spokeswoman for his office said.

“Our top priority is to prevent the spread of this disease in order to protect farmers’ stock. The plans are tested and well-established,” said the spokeswoman.

Recommendations made following the 2001 outbreak were being followed “to the letter,” she added.

Millions of animals were killed during the 2001 outbreak, destroying the livelihoods of thousands of farmers. Images of funeral pyres of burning animals were flashed around the world, dealing a huge blow to Britain’s tourism industry.

Brown’s predecessor Tony Blair came under intense criticism for his government’s handling of the last outbreak, particularly for a slow response and for failing to stop the movement of animals quickly.

Officials said animals would now be disposed of by incineration to avoid a repeat of the 2001 pyres.

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The National Farmers’ Union said it welcomed the blanket ban on the movement of livestock.

“We believe that this is the right response to this incident and it is vital that we do everything possible to stop the spread of this disease quickly,” the union said in a statement.

“We would encourage all livestock keepers to be vigilant and monitor their livestock closely,” it added.

The disease can be carried on the wheels of vehicles, in livestock units and on shoes and boots, officials warned. They said it was too soon to say how the cattle had become infected.

The last outbreak of the highly contagious disease began in 2001 in an abattoir in southern England, and spread to several other European Union countries before it was eradicated.

Then, the country’s livestock industry was just recovering from an outbreak of mad cow disease -- Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy -- that swept British herds in the 1980s and early 1990s.

An EU ban on British beef exports was partially lifted in 1999, but only completely removed in 2006.

The 2001 foot and mouth scare turned into one of the world’s largest and most expensive animal disease outbreaks, with overall costs estimated at up to 12 billion euros ($16 billion).

Authorities slaughtered 6.5 million animals in Britain and burned them, rather than use vaccines.

France, Ireland and the Netherlands were also hit.

“This will put a real chill into the heart of every livestock farmer in the country,” said Chris Huhne, environment spokesman for the opposition Liberal Democrats.

“The last outbreak affected the whole rural economy.”

additional reporting by Nigel Hunt