This weekend, the confirmation of four new cases of foot and mouth disease in Yorkshire has left farmers under renewed movement restrictions and increased fears that their herds will have to be destroyed. There are now 16 infected farms in the Settle area of North Yorkshire, and animals at 65 nearby farms have been slaughtered, according to the government’s chief vet, Jim Scudamore.

“We have held our breath and hoped it wouldn’t come here but now farmers know the storm is going to hit us,” said Tim Palmer, group secretary of the Craven National Farmers’ Union. He added that the disease is spreading at a worrying pace.

When the disease was first detected, livestock transportation bans were imposed nationwide. Licences then permitted farmers to move limited stock as the crisis appeared to wane, but full bans have now been re-imposed on almost 1,000 farms in the Settle and Clitheroe areas of North Yorkshire while investigators trace the source of this latest cluster of cases.

As the new cases came to light, fears were raised that the disease is not disappearing. The cases in North Yorkshire have brought the national total to 15 outbreaks in the last ten days. This is undeniably bad news for farmers, but the new cases have proved ready political fodder in the run up to the general election, as the opposition party claims that Prime Minister Tony Blair has mislead the public about the extent of the FMD crisis. Speaking in BBC Radio, shadow agriculture minister Tim Yeo called for an independent statistician to audit the number of cases.

“This is a very serious development indeed,” he said.

Blair meanwhile reiterated that is essential that people do not become complacent about the disease. “What we said was that the numbers of cases were coming down very considerably, as they obviously have done. But we also warned at the time that there would carry on being some cases of foot-and-mouth disease and that it was vitally important that people carry on taking the measures of security and safety to make sure the disease does not spread,” he commented at his election news conference.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food added that while no new cases were detected in the Settle area yesterday, it would be unwise to draw any conclusions about the number of further cases.