FARMERS may need to get much closer to their customers in the wake of the foot-and-mouth crisis.

Mr Charlie Moir, divisional veterinary manager for the whole of the Highlands and the Western Isles, told the annual meeting of the North Riding and Durham County NFU that it was time for the local farmer to get nearer to his market and selling his meat more directly would also cut down on animal movements.

"In France, you get supermarkets displaying a picture of a local farmer whose meat they are selling," said Mr Moir.

He cited the increasing popularity of farmers' markets and said: "You are going to have to take that a stage further, in my opinion. I am being deliberately provocative to make you think. I am not trying to knock the farmers in any way at all. But this is the reality."

Mr Moir, who helped co-ordinate the foot-and-mouth campaign in the North-East from Kenton Bar, near Newcastle, at the height of the disaster, traced the events of the past year in a frank talk, saying it was now obvious that Britain had to improve animal identification; recording of movements; reduction of movements where possible; import controls and enforcement.

"One of the problems we faced was that a farmer goes to market to buy 100 sheep but a dealer buys 5,000, all in different batches. Farmers take animals to market and don't actually see who is buying them.

"You may look on dealers as being friends, but in reality they are there to make money out of you. If you take them out of the equation, the money might come to you.

"There is a long chain of people getting between the farmer and the ultimate customer. To my mind, the most important people are the producer and the consumer."

Mr Dick Wade from Brancepeth, said his impression was that small butchers in indoor markets were critical of farmers' stalls, saying they were taking their customers away.

Mr Moir replied that butchers were more at risk from the local supermarket than a farmers' market stall. "Try putting your produce into a local butcher's shop and make a feature of it. Say you are delighted to do that and market the quality of your product," he said.

He stressed that it was the complexity of movement, not just the distance animals now travelled, which was the main problem.

Questioned, he agreed that some method of identification of sheep and their histories might be seen as the way ahead. "Individual sheep movements will work if you use micro-chips," he said.

Looking back at the crisis, one of the biggest lessons had been that speed was essential when it came to identifying an infected farm and carrying out contiguous culling, but a rapid response needed better resources.

"We had 400 vets and 2,300 cases in 1967 when farms were smaller. During this campaign we had about 200 vets with about the same number of cases but a huge number of animals because of the sheep."

One of the problems had been the number of legal challenges to culling: "We had one farm infected and four out of the six contiguous farms launched appeals."

Asked why there were so many appeals, he said: "I think we didn't explain to the farmers why it was absolutely necessary and we are, as a nation, more litigious than ever before. Also, people were quite genuinely and reasonably frightened out of their wits."

In addition, there was also a deep sense of shame among the affected farmers and their families about having the virus, although they had done nothing wrong.

A multi-agency response and improved liaison with local authorities would also be important in future. "We need a network of people talking to each other, inter-departmental co-operation and people knowing exactly what role they need to play," said Mr Moir. "The Army should be involved as a priority, because it gives you a pool of people trained to work as a team."

In the aftermath of the disease, there was a need to look seriously at disposal. "We found ground either waterlogged or too hard. In the South-West they couldn't find anywhere to get rid of them. Animals were lying out in the countryside longer than anyone intended."

On imports, he stressed that a huge volume of goods was now coming in through the EU and ports needed to check absolutely everything. That was an issue the government would have to address.

National and regional foot-and-mouth inquiries were now in the pipeline and the National Audit office and the European parliament would look at the way money had been spent.

"If you sent a letter to the Army asking them to cull 200 sheep on a farm and it turned out there were 250, you are likely to be held to account.

"One problem was the enormous stress and pressure we were all under and some silly mistakes were made. Some may come back to haunt me," he added ruefully.

Mr Moir was warmly thanked by the new vice-chairman, Mr David Maughan, who emphasised the high regard they had for him and his work in the region