VILLAGERS fear that burning 400 cattle on an infected farm could spread the disease to healthy animals.

Residents have watched in horror as a pile of cattle carcasses has grown only yards from their homes at High Etherley, near Bishop Auckland, County Durham.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) ordered the bonfire after the disease was confirmed at Greenfields Farm last weekend.

About 150 cattle belonging to the Lovegreen family were slaughtered, then a further 250 carcasses were trucked to the site from nearby farms. The cattle were left until a pyre was started yesterday afternoon.

But people claim the site was unsuitable because bringing in the infected cattle threatened neighbouring farms untouched by the disease.

One woman, who did not want to be identified, said: "They have done all this and it has blown smoke over to clean farms.

"I know they say the fumes don't spread foot-and-mouth, but they don't know for sure, and today was such a windy day - it's unbelievable."

Another resident said: "Why should they bring in infected cattle from other areas, when there are other places they could have been taken away from houses and animals?"

More than 400 sheep were removed from Greenfields Farm to be buried in a landfill site, but cattle have to be burned for fear of spreading BSE.

Many villagers spoke of the sympathy they felt for the farming family.

Joyce Maddison said: "The young couple have only been there three years, but they work day and night, they doubled the amount of sheep in the field.

"It's dreadful."

A spokesman for Maff confirmed the carcasses had been taken from nearby farms and said vets were satisfied burning cattle was a safe method of destruction.

He said: "They have obviously been taken in sealed tanks, with all the correct precautions taken, and they would only be taken to the accepting farm if the farmer agreed.

"Combining animals into one big pyre is more efficient and speeds things up a bit."

The Lovegreens did not wish to comment