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Farmers were today commiserating the fact that the black landmark of 2,000 foot and mouth cases is about to be reached.

But NFU Deputy President Tim Bennett said this depressing figure must be put into the context. This has been the worst outbreak of the disease ever known in the world and all the signs are that it is now in its final stages.

He said: "In our worst nightmares we could never have imagined just how significant an epidemic this would be when we heard about that first case. But, despite the bleak headlines, the huge efforts being made mean the situation is improving every day."

He pointed to the fact that:
* An average of three fresh cases a day were reported for the seven day period ending 26 August compared with 40 at the height of the epidemic.
* Out of 137,523 holdings that have had infected area restrictions since the start of the outbreak, 100,720 have had restrictions lifted, a reduction of 73%.
* Of the 9,126 farms which have had their animals slaughtered, 6,433 have begun cleansing and disinfection with more than a third starting to look at re-stocking.
* Up to 100,000 blood samples each week are being taken from at risk sheep with less than 1% proving positive.

Mr Bennett said: "We are under no illusion about the amount of work left to do. We know that as the autumn approaches the cooler weather will not help us in our efforts to stamp out the disease.

"There must be no repeat of the worrying sparks like that in Northumberland in recent days and everyone who goes anywhere near a farm must keep up the vital bio-security measures."

He added: "When this disaster is finally over we need to have some answers about how this could have happened. It is still a matter of disgust for farmers that while they are battling foot and mouth, the door is still open to illegal imports.

"We also need to examine how we tackle it in future if, heaven forbid, there is another outbreak. I think we all agree that we can never have a repeat of the situation we face today."

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