April 09, 2001 12:00 PM

In parts of Britain, walking trails through the countryside are closed now, and the air is filled with acrid smoke from the burning pyres of diseased animal carcasses. Since last month, when the first case of foot-and-mouth disease was discovered here, whole sections of the country’s once idyllic farmland have been transformed into killing fields. But it is outside the suburb of Heddon-on-the-Wall, where a yellow police tape stretches across the entrance to Bobby Waugh’s pig yard, that authorities are focusing on the origins of the epidemic. This, they say, may be the place where it all began.

Though officials still aren’t certain how the virus arrived at Waugh’s door, “the farm in Heddon-on-the-Wall looks to be the likely source,” says Sam Harris, a spokesman for Britain’s Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. “It’s the oldest case we can find.”

Unlike that other British plague, mad cow disease, the foot-and-mouth virus—named for the painful sores it causes on animals’ hooves and mouths—almost never poses any health threat to humans and is not usually fatal to adult animals. Still, the illness—which may be introduced via contaminated food containing the virus and quickly spreads on boots, clothes or even through the air—is capable of debilitating entire herds of livestock. The most widely accepted method of containing it is by destroying diseased animals, as well as any herds who might have had contact with the virus. “It is the most highly contagious disease that we know in man or animal,” says Tony Stevens, a spokesman for the British Veterinary Association. “You can’t overstress its ability to travel, and very quickly.”

By late March there had been more than 625 confirmed cases of foot-and-mouth in Britain, resulting in the slaughter of some 419,325 cows, sheep and pigs and costing an estimated $150 million per week in the tourist industry alone. (The U.S., which has not seen an outbreak since 1929, has now banned European meat. And any travelers who have been to farms in infected areas must have their baggage inspected and clothing washed and disinfected before entering the country.)

At the heart of the crisis is Bobby Waugh, 55, who left school at 15 to join his father as a pig farmer and ran the Heddon yard with his brother Ronnie, 59. Waugh’s troubles began on Feb. 22, when MAFF officials found the disease in pigs at an Essex slaughterhouse and learned that Waugh was one of the 60 farmers who had sent animals there. Arriving at his farm—actually a holding facility where animals are fattened before being transported to the slaughterhouse—officials took blood and tissue samples. With the diagnosis confirmed, “you’re shocked,” says Waugh. “You don’t know what you’re feeling.”

The following day 850 pigs and 35 cattle from Waugh’s piggery and a farm nearby were shot, doused with diesel oil and incinerated in a 150-yard-long trench. “On Saturday they started killing the pigs,” says Waugh. “They finished off on Sunday, past 9 o’clock at night.”

Despite the MAFF investigation, Waugh—who lives with Ronnie and his two sisters in Sunderland, 20 miles from the farm—insists that his operation is properly run. Although he is one of less than 2 percent of British farmers to follow the outdated custom of feeding his pigs swill (which is made from leftover food garbage), he maintains that he gave his animals only feed that had been properly heat-processed, which should have killed any impurities. “Everything I’ve done, I’ve done by the book,” he says. “It’s all been legal.”

Still, Waugh has had problems in the past. In 1995, after a three-year legal battle, his Tileshed Lane Piggeries operation in East Boldon was shut down following numerous code complaints. And late last year there were similar objections about Waugh’s Heddon operation. “I’ve been inside, and while I know a pig farm isn’t going to be clean, the conditions seem to be atrocious,” neighbor John Simons told The Guardian. “It’s like some kind of horror film in there.”

Until authorities make a final judgment on his culpability, he is passing his time watching television and making daily trips to a local hospital, where Ronnie is awaiting test results for possible cancer. “I don’t talk about the pigs to him,” says Waugh. “I don’t want to put that in his mind.” As the controversy swirls around him, he is adamant that his own conscience is clear. “People that know me know I’ve done the job right.”

Susan Schindehette
Ellen Tumposky in London

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