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Country News - 2005

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Pheasant disease alert: UK & France act

Wednesday 20 July 2005

AS poultry farmers and game-bird breeders in North Yorkshire go on alert after last week's outbreak of Newcastle disease in pheasants - which can quickly turn into a killer plague for domestic birds - Britain and France have acted quickly to isolate areas of possible infection.

Although the single UK outbreak is at present confined to a farm in Surrey, it can spread like wildfire and early indications suggest that it might have been imported from France.

And unlike previous outbreaks of animal disease like BSE and foot and mouth, which led to constant bickering between the two nations, government vets in both countries have been ordered to work together to track down and isolate possible sources of the disease.

In North Yorkshire, where game shooting plays an important economic role in many isolated areas of the Dales and North York Moors, the threat has brought back unpleasant memories of the foot and mouth disaster.

Newcastle disease is not threat to humans but can ravage poultry and game birds. In the Surrey outbreak, some 2,500 pheasants were culled at the weekend and now suspicions have moved to a huge French game-breeding farm with 20,000 pheasants and 35,000 partridges.

Vets in both countries are desperately trying to establish if the two outbreaks are connected.

The disease could not have come at a worst time for sporting estates in North Yorkshire with the autumn shooting season only weeks away. With farming in crisis, many smaller country estates survive only on the profits from shooters. Local hotels, pubs and restaurants also benefit from their trade.

However, this week's prompt action is reassuring. The Surrey outbreak is a long way away and, this time, Defra seems to have reacted with speed. The old Ministry of Agriculture allowed two weeks - at least - to pass before raising a national alert over foot and mouth, by which time it had spread over hundreds of miles.

At that time, MAFF panicked and virtually closed down the countryside for weeks on end, dealing a massive blow to the tourist industry. This time, said a Defra official yesterday, "the countryside should remain open for business."


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