Restrictions on animal movement in the north of England imposed during the foot-and-mouth epidemic were lifted at midnight last night [Thursday], leaving only 4.7% of the restrictions imposed since February still in place.

In the largest-ever single reversal of restrictions in an infected area, about 8,500 farms in North Yorkshire, Northumberland, Lancashire and Cumbria will now be able to move sheep and cattle freely. Many of the roadside disinfection points introduced during the epidemic will also be removed.

Farmers in the area have expressed relief, after fears had grown that animals could starve if they could not be moved to new pastures.

Rural affairs minister Lord Whitty advised caution in the affected areas, however, and is quoted by the BBC as saying: "This is an important step forward, and reflects a considerable achievement by teams on the ground carrying out the programme of blood testing. I would emphasise that now, as always, vigilance and strict bio-security are essential.

"We cannot afford to relax our guard, and it is the responsibility of everyone - farmers, Defra officers, and the wider community - to maintain standards and ensure that this disease is eradicated."

There remain only four areas under restrictions; Skipton (North Yorkshire), Hexham (Northumberland) and two parts of Cumbria. These areas cover a total of around 6,630 farms.