Foot-and-Mouth Leaves Britain With Serious Pollution Problem

Liz Spring
for National Geographic News
April 25, 2001

SALISBURY, England—Dangerous threats to the environment are seriously hampering efforts in Britain to dispose of the carcasses of livestock slaughtered as a result of the foot-and-mouth epidemic.

Farmers and residents in areas affected by the disease have been in open conflict with overstretched Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) officials over the handling of the carcasses.

After witnessing the sacrifice of thousands of their animals, farmers "are now having to face the grisly prospect of watching their carcasses decompose, often just a few feet from their homes," says Ian Johnson, a spokesman for the National Farmers' Union, "It's pandemonium out there. It's ridiculous to say things are under control when the farms are littered with dead animals."

Maff's statistics are confusing due to constantly changing reports from officials in the field, but April 19 figures state that nearly 1.3 million animals have been culled, while over half a million still await slaughter. More than a quarter of a million carcasses await disposal.

Air pollution from massive pyres in infected areas is causing such concern that Environment Agency (EA) officials have stopped burnings in some parts of the country. Now the stench from mountains of rotting carcasses is stoking public outrage.

Disposal Sites a Problem

Finding suitable sites to bury or burn the carcasses has become a major problem as disposals must conform to the EA's regulations.

Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) Minister Michael Meacher says that burning is unavoidable given the scale of the slaughter. "Of course it is a problem. It is a health risk. But pyres have been sited in locations to minimize risk to water supplies," he says.

Decomposing sheep and cattle in County Durham were recently buried on an incorrectly designated site. EA officials insisted they be dug up and reburied as the site would have polluted an underground spring supplying nearby farms and villages.

The EA says that the geography of Durham County severely limits availability of suitable sites.

Maff officials admit they face a "very serious problem" in Devon, one of the worst hit areas. A start has been made on the disposal of 200,000 rotting carcasses after controversy over delays in preparing a suitable disposal site. The animals have been lying for weeks in fields where they were slaughtered. "It is not a pretty sight, but we've heard nothing from Maff since they were slaughtered," says Courtney Heard, a farmer in the area.

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