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Cold comfort farms

The Army has taken on the grisly task of project managing the response to the foot and mouth crisis. Nina Lovelace went to Cumbria, one of the country's worst hit areas, to find out how they are coping.

With new foot and mouth cases appearing every day, the future is bleak for Cumbria's farmers. It is a situation found across the country. Farmers stand forlornly in pubs, constantly discussing the crisis. The M6 north of Penrith is hazy with smoke from the burning pyres.

So far Cumbria has seen 193,000 sheep, 15,000 cattle and 19,000 pigs destroyed in the attempt to control the virus. Up to 400 farmers now face the long task of rebuilding businesses formed over decades.

However, despite the gloom, a hive of positive activity continues, centred around a grey industrial estate in Carlisle. Here soldiers also discuss the situation ceaselessly, this time thinking and rethinking plans to tackle the problem.

The site is the heart of the Army's project management team, brought on board by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food (MAFF).

'The Army is used to co-ordinating a large number of people on the ground under good command and control, ' says Lieutenant Colonel Paul Baker, head of the logistical team in Cumbria.

Control is one of the Army's primary roleshere. The risk of spreading foot and mouth disease (FMD) is high, and tight control over dealing with animals, their slaughter and disposal is essential if the army is to win the 'war', Baker explains.

But the major problems on a daily basis surround the physical logistics of what needs to be done when a new FMD incident is confirmed on an infected premises (IP).

'We have to identify all the logistic showstoppers, ' says Baker. 'For example, if a vehicle has not turned up, or there is a large number of animals or there is poor access.'

The soldiers act as liaison officers between the farmers, checking resources and supervising the eventual disposal of carcasses on a site by site basis, while reporting progress back to their main centre in Carlisle.

Baker explains that animals on an IP are generally burnt on site rather than being taken elsewhere, to reduce the risk of spreading the disease. But all these operations need military input.

Last week, for example, four mobile logistic units were sent out specifically to supervise this process, operating across four designated areas within Cumbria - Solway in the north west, Longtown in the north east and Penrith west and east.

Baker is striving to cut the time between IP designation and disposal to 24 hours. These mobile units, he hopes, will improve the speed of supervision in particular areas, allowing the Army to deal with infected sites more quickly.

All operations must conform to the 'firebreak' principle, where animals on farms within a 3km perimeter of infected premises must be slaughtered whether or not they have FMD.

This principle, Baker explains, is to remove the animals - therefore the 'fuel' - and to stem the spread of virus.

'The idea is go on the offensive, ' he says, 'otherwise we are in danger of falling behind rather than getting ahead.'

Animals are usually transported to a local abattoir for slaughter. After this they are moved to a large burial site at Great Orton in sealed lorries or taken to landfill sites at Hespin Wood or nearby Flusco.

However some animals are transported directly to Great Orton and slaughtered on site before being buried.

'We are sending 4,000 sheep a day to landfill and have buried about 32,000 sheep at Great Orton, ' says Baker. (As NCE went to press this figure had risen to 160,000. ) The burial site at Orton has capacity for 290,000 sheep.

Baker explains that the mass burial, although taking up more space, is faster and less resource intensive than burning.

The site at Great Orton was specifically chosen with the support of the Environment Agency because it lies over boulder clay which will prevent seepage of fluids into the ground. The actual burial hole must have 1m of subsoil below the carcasses and 2m of subsoil above.

The army has no time for bureaucratic delay - a bonus that many engineers would cherish. Baker admits that usually these type of risk assessments procedures can take months, but in this situation all the stops had to be pulled out to speed up the process.

'Authorities allow us to cut the red tape because we are civil servants, ' says Baker, 'They all realise that these things need to be done in hours rather than months.'

However, their project management priority list has brought Baker's team, and MAFF, some criticism from local farmers, unable to escape the sight of their dead stock awaiting disposal.

However, the Army is not in Cumbria to protect emotions, and must push on with the serious job in hand.

The grim reality, as one of Baker's colleagues on the project, Major Guy Richardson, points out, is more serious. 'The priority is to eradicate this disease, not make nice piles everywhere. We can not hide the unpleasantness.'

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