Tens of thousands of farm animals are being slaughtered across the United Kingdom in a desperate effort to halt the spread of hoof and mouth disease.

The disease has reached the large Devon farming region, already hard-hit by BSE, and threatens to bankrupt large parts of British agriculture, and radically reduce meat supplies in the UK. It is probable that Britain will have to increase meat imports substantially to fulfill normal demand in coming months. Consumers are being urged not to panic buy.

European countries have launched a series of emergency measures to prevent the disease hitting their livestock. 3,000 animals have been slaughtered in Norway at farms with links to the United Kingdom. Belgium has imposed a ban on nine livestock markets and ordered all animals coming in from the UK to be disinfected. Germany has imposed quarantines on several farms after confirming the presence of UK livestock.

The four new cases confirmed in the UK today destroyed hopes that the disease had been contained by mass slaughter and a seven-day ban on livestock movement.

Because of the fact that there is little transfer of live animals between the UK and North America, no restrictions beyond normal customs requirements have been placed on the importation of live animals from abroad in the US and Canada.

Hoof and mouth disease is a highly contagious viral sickness that quickly kills pigs, sheep and other hooved animals. Among hooved farm animals, only horses are immune.

In 1967 a similar epidemic wiped out large numbers of British cattle, and forced the slaughter of thousands more. It did not spread to Europe then, because there was little transfer of cattle across the English Channel, a process that is now commonplace.

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