Ireland has reported its first case of foot and mouth disease, making it the fourth European country to fall victim of the highly contagious disease.

Tests on tissue samples taken from sheep on a farm in north County Louth, near the border with Northern Ireland, had proved positive said Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern. The farm was within a 10-km (6 mile) exclusion zone placed around the holding in County Armagh where Northern Ireland's only outbreak of the disease was confirmed earlier this month. Ireland immediately suspended animal product exports abroad, with the EU expected to deliver its own ban on exports to the other 15 member states very soon.

The European continent is braced for yet more outbreaks of the disease after the Netherlands discovered its first cases yesterday.

Foot and mouth was confirmed on Wednesday at three farms in the east of the Netherlands; more suspected cases are being investigated at a slaughterhouse in the south and at three farms in the east. The Dutch government has instigated a vaccination scheme in the areas immediately outside the 1km restriction zone of known cases to try and halt the spread of the disease. The Dutch have already started to slaughter 17,000 animals within the area and will also kill the vaccinated livestock once the disease has been eradicated.

Veterinary officials said they are mystified as to how the disease had found its way into the country, as the cows at Olst are said to have had no contact with British or French animals and no animals were brought in or out of the farm either this year or last.

Meanwhile in the UK, the toll stood at 444 on Thursday as Professor Roy Anderson, a senior scientific adviser to the UK Government, has warned that the foot and mouth epidemic is out of control. Anderson said it could take another five months to eliminate.