AT STILLINGTON, between Stockton and Darlington, the NFU demanded an inquiry after Maff failed to send a vet to a reported case for more than two days. The farming community fears the delay could have allowed the disease to spread.

Mr Alan Bowes, of West Farm, Old Stillington, telephoned the ministry at 8.30am on Thursday of last week when his animals showed signs of foot-and-mouth.

"I rang three times on the Thursday and they said they couldn't come until Friday," he said. "They rang on Friday and asked if the stock were eating again and I said yes. The woman who rang then said 'you haven't got foot and mouth'."

"I asked if we were confined in, and she said no. Then a calf died and I thought we must have pneumonia. I rang my own vet who came when he finished his rounds and said it was foot-and-mouth."

Mr Bowes eventually persuaded the ministry to send a vet, who arrived on Saturday to confirm the outbreak. Slaughter of the farm's 324 sheep, 44 cattle and a goat began almost immediately.

A Maff spokesman confirmed Mr Bowes had called the vet's office on the Thursday but said a vet was not available until Saturday.

"What we normally try to do is get someone out within 24 hours but sometimes it does lapse," she said. "It took a little bit longer in this case as it was a 'clean' area with no previous cases. We have to send a 'clean' vet - who has not been in a contaminated area for three days - into a 'clean' area and it was difficult to find one in this case."

Mr John Ryder, NFU county chairman for the North Riding and County Durham, said the West Farm case was not unusual.

"The whole of the North-East is getting very disillusioned with Maff," he said. "Farmers report what they think might be an outbreak and Maff has a duty to come out to that farm as soon as possible and get it confirmed."

One of the victims in the grip of foot-and-mouth disease in Wensleydale likened the last two weeks to waiting on death row.

Mr David Bowe, who farms at Catriggs, between Bainbridge and Hawes, with his brother, John, was devastated to learn on Saturday that their 350 Swaledale sheep and 80-strong dairy herd must be slaughtered.

The family had been on tenterhooks since March 7, when the disease was confirmed at Raygill House, on the opposite side of the main A684.

"It was like being on death row," said Mr David Bowe, aged 51. "We knew we were highly likely to get it and would be very lucky if we didn't. Once we were over the initial shock, it was a case of going through the motions and waiting for the ministry."

Three new cases were confirmed in the Hawes area this week, bringing the North Yorkshire total to four.

The Bowes had taken all precautions since the first UK outbreaks and had no direct contact with affected areas.

"I blame crows. They are the only way it could have spread," said Mr Bowe. "There are a lot about at this time and whenever I fed sheep I was surrounded by crows."

Slaughter of the family's stock ends decades of breeding which netted hundreds of first prizes at agricultural shows.

Mr Bowe, whose mother was born on the farm, said it was too early to begin thinking of the future. "We don't yet know what we are going to do. My father, who's 81 and semi-retired, has seen his whole life's work go. It has affected him very badly."

The weekend brought the same grim news to the Pratt family, at Burtersett, near Hawes, who saw 72 sheep at Hunger Hill condemned and 371 sheep and 84 cattle at nearby Lowgate Farm lined up for slaughter.

Confirmation of a fourth case came on Monday at Mr Wilson Dinsdale's farm at Westlea, Burtersett Road, Hawes.

A targeted slaughter of healthy stock at farms in the Hawes and Burtersett area was announced by Maff on Wednesday.

Removal of carcases of infected sheep from Wensleydale began on Wednesday as sealed lorries took them to a rendering plant at Widnes, Cheshire.

Traffic on the A684 between Hawes and Bainbridge was limited to local access because of the size of the wagons involved.

l Other reports of how the epidemic is affecting the region are given on page 14