The temporary ban on exports of live animals, meat from Britain will be devastating for farmers but is a necessary evil to control the spread of foot and mouth disease, the NFU said today.

Reacting to the announcement, NFU President Ben Gill said farmers will do whatever it takes to stop the disease turning into the complete catastrophe of the 1960s.

He stressed that this was in no way a human health control measure, as there are no implications for the human food chain, according to the Food Standards Agency.

Mr Gill said: "This ban will be devastating for us - it is like staring into the abyss. On top of all the problems we have had to surmount in the last few years, the impact is unthinkable.

"But it is in the interests of the whole of the British livestock industry that the spread of this disease is halted and there is simply no alternative.

"The sooner the outbreak is controlled, the sooner any restrictions can be lifted and that has to be our main priority now."

The total value of beef, lamb and pork exports - both live exports and meat - in 2000 was £579 million. The financial impact of this temporary ban will depend on how long it lasts.

The impact on the sheep sector could be particularly severe as the UK exports almost £320 million of lamb.

Mr Gill added: "Farmers will undoubtedly feel greatly distressed by this news. However, it is vitally important that the industry does not panic and that we maintain an orderly marketing of livestock so that we do not depress our domestic market.

"I also simply cannot stress how important it is that every farmer in Britain with livestock is vigilant to the symptoms of this disease. The disease is very easily transferred on clothing and vehicles - everyone in the countryside should minimise their movements around farms.

"We must work together to ensure that this outbreak does not become like the nightmare outbreak of the 1960s."