CATTLE markets in the region are to reopen in February, a year after they were closed to help contain the spread of foot-and-mouth disease.

The outbreak sparked the closure of all marts and abattoirs in the North-East and North Yorkshire by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food - a move which cost the farming industry hundreds of thousands of pounds in lost revenue.

Agricultural shows - without sheep - will also resume in February.

The easing of restrictions has been welcomed by farmers and auctioneers in the region who have been left in financial strife.

George Potts, of Darlington Farmers' Auction Mart, said: "I think the announcement is brilliant.

"The last time the cattle market was open was in February and we have been doing other business since then, but not to the volume that we would normally do.

"We won't know until end of the our financial year, at the end of December, how much we have made this year, but it won't be anything like we would normally have done.

"It's just been terrible. Everybody you speak to has just been wishing it would re-open.

"I have managed to supplement my income doing valuations. On our busy market day on Thursdays there would be 15 or 16 staff, but they have not been employed since then. It has been hard."

Farmers and market operators will be able to obtain new general licences instead of individual licences which they have to apply to the local authority for each time they want to move stock.

Lord Whitty, Minister for Food and Farming, announced that as from February, sheep and pigs could be moved to slaughter markets.

He said: "We have not had a case of foot-and-mouth disease since the end of September, and our programme of testing has enabled us to reduce the risk status of all the counties affected.

"If all continues to go well, I am aiming to introduce new arrangements from mid-February which reflect the improved situation, but recognise the need to maintain precautions against the recurrence of the disease."

Under the revised regulations, animals of different species will have to be kept apart on sale days, and any animals remaining unsold at the end of the market will have to return where they came from and not be moved for another 20 days.

Richard Watts, group secretary of National Farmers' Union, in Darlington, said: "It is excellent news. It has been very hard this year for everybody involved.

"No one section of the industry has been left untouched by the disease. It is good news to start the new year off."

The exact date for when new measures will start will be agreed by officials in January and only if all continues to go well