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Feb 28, 2001 - 02:36 AM

Anxiety, Depression as Farmers Wait to See if Their Herds Will Be Hit

By Laura King, Associated Press Writer

CORRINGHAM, England (AP) - Standing beside a heap of disinfectant-soaked straw blocking the winding lane that leads to his farm, Ian Frood says he feels he's aged 10 years in the past week.

"This virus is unforgiving," said the 53-year-old farmer, whose land lies in the flat green countryside of Essex, only a few miles from the epicenter of Britain's outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. "If it comes, it comes. There's really nothing you can do to stop it."

In the second week of what is fast becoming a wildfire epidemic of the highly contagious livestock ailment, Britain's farmers live in daily dread of finding that the infection has hit their herds. If that happens, it is a death sentence for the animals - and sometimes, for a farmer's hopes of staying on the land.

"So many of my colleagues have said to me, 'If it gets my herd, that's it. I just don't have it in me to start all over again,'" saidFrood, whose father and grandfather were farmers before him. "You just feel so helpless."

The disease, first discovered among pigs at an Essex slaughterhouse on Feb. 19, has been found at nearly a score of separate sites, pointing to an ever-expanding web of infection. Authorities are struggling to contain it, but the virus is so potent, and so easily spread, that it almost seems to be leapfrogging around Britain at will.

It can be carried on the wind, or on a trouser cuff. It can turn up in contaminated feed, or be carried by animals that can't catch it - horses, dogs, badgers. It hitches rides on cars and farm machinery. Once one animal in a herd gets it, others will swiftly sicken as well.

Increasingly desperate to stem the spread of contagion, officials have closed country footpaths, halted horse racing, quarantined suspect farms and slaughterhouses, and shut down many parks and nature reserves.

Frood, like virtually every livestock farmer in Britain, is taking measures to try to protect his herds, 300 cattle and 350 sheep. Footbaths of straw soaked in disinfectant and laid atop blue plastic sheeting are laid at every entrance to the farm.

His workers change clothes when they arrive and depart. He and his wife leave the farm as seldom as possible, and visitors are greeted warmly - but only allowed to come as far as the farm gate.

"The thing is, you are constantly aware of how vulnerable you are," he said. "I know many of those who have been hit, who were being as careful as it's possible to be. You just don't know when you might be next."

Since the outbreak began, the normal rhythms of farm life have ceased. No trips to the livestock market; the transport of live animals has been banned nationwide. No new contracts with dealers; the export of British meat, milk and live animals has been halted.

Frood, who is a local leader of the National Farmers' Union, the biggest trade group, says he spends much of his time on the telephone with other farmers, friends and strangers alike. Mostly, he just lets them talk.

"There's just panic, fear, depression - a mix of all kinds of feelings," he said. "You speak to someone in the morning and they seem all right, and by evening their mood has changed completely."

Frood knows well how that feels. Sometimes, he is almost euphoric over having gotten through another day with no sign of infection among his animals. But if, say, a sheep momentarily appears to stumble, his heart skips a beat as he wonders whether he'll find telltale blisters around its hooves.

A few miles away, an acrid scent fills the air as workers use heavy machinery to arrange huge piles of animal carcasses for incineration, fueled with coal and diesel fuel. In recent days, the pyres have been burning nearly nonstop, sending huge plumes of smoke into the gray skies. The ashes are then buried in deep pits.

"It's an absolute horror - it just destroys the farmers and their wives to have to see it," said Frood. "You can't imagine how it feels. It's much more than just your livelihood."

Like many other farmers, he believes this could be the start of a long siege. A catastrophic 1967 outbreak of the disease - Britain's worst - took nearly eight months to quell, and forced the slaughter of nearly half a million animals.

"I just don't know how long it can go on - how long we can go on like this."

AP-ES-02-28-01 0236EST

-- Swissrose (, February 28, 2001

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