Rare sheep project expands as foot-and-mouth fears linger

July 26, 2002

Scientists are to continue with a project to save rare sheep from foot-and-mouth disease because they feel the government has not acted to remove the threat of a repeat of the epidemic, writes Steve Farrar.

The Heritage GeneBank sought to preserve germplasm from breeds unique to the British Isles during last year's crisis.

A number of the UK's 80-odd breeds were threatened with extinction as the government's strategy to fight the disease saw almost 7 million animals culled.

The epidemic has ended, but the gene bank project has been expanded to form the Sheep Trust. Dianna Bowles, professor of biochemistry at York University and chair of the board of trustees, said this was because the problems that turned the outbreak into a catastrophe remained.

"There's very grave concern that the procedures in place to stop foot-and-mouth coming back are insufficient. Unless these procedures are tightened, another crisis will occur," Professor Bowles said. "That is one reason why academics, scientists and vets involved in this initiative are still in there."

Professor Bowles's criticism of government policy will add to the impact of two reports on the handling of the 2001 epidemic. Both - one by the Royal Society and this week's by Iain Anderson, former head of Unilever - highlight mistakes and suggest that vaccination should be used to help contain outbreaks. Margaret Beckett, the rural affairs secretary, conceded this week that vaccination would form part of the national response in future.

Nevertheless, Professor Bowles said the government's new animal health bill committed it to mass slaughter to stop a new outbreak. "The government should change policy in line with scientific advice. The animal health bill must be revoked," she said.

The trust is drafting a priority list of native sheep breeds that are specially adapted to the environment, genetically distinct and numerically scarce. Efforts will be made to preserve these breeds' germplasm to ensure their survival in the face of any future cull.

The scientists, who include Philip Gilmartin, professor of plant molecular genetics at Leeds University, and Henry Leese, professor of biology at York University, support the economic farming of the breeds and will lobby for a science-based approach to agriculture.

The Sheep Trust's website is at www.york.ac.uk/depts/biol/sheep

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