As foot-and-mouth continued to spread across Britain on Saturday, the government found itself caught between a tourist industry desperate to draw visitors back to the countryside and farmers angry that hundreds of thousands of healthy animals are to be slaughtered.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals joined mounting opposition to the mass slaughter, which calls for the destruction of healthy sheep and pigs within 2 miles of infected sites in the worst-affected areas of northern England and southern Scotland.
"If there are speculative culls, the government risks killing the wrong sheep in the wrong place," said the group's chief veterinarian, Chris Laurence.
Plans for the expanded slaughter have divided farmers. The National Farmers' Union supports the move, but lobby group Farmers For Action said it would take legal action to stop the cull.
"This is all-out war _ and I don't use those words lightly," said spokesman David Handley. "If this is the way they want to handle it, I'm afraid they've got a fight on their hands."
The wide culls are scheduled to start after government officials explain them in person to farmers on Monday. But in northeastern Scotland, some slaughters began of apparently healthy sheep that had come from a market in one of the condemned northern England zones, the Scottish parliament announced.
A month after the outbreak began, nearly 300 cases of foot-and-mouth have been discovered in Britain, along with one in Northern Ireland and another in France. The government hopes the drastic cull will allow officials to reopen some of the parks, pathways and tourist attractions closed in an attempt to stem the outbreak.
Tourism officials say the closures are costing the industry as much as $360-million a week.
Culture Secretary Chris Smith said Saturday that the government was looking at ways of providing economic relief to the tourist sector.
"We will be seeing if there is more the government can do. What I cannot do is produce an instant check book," he said during a visit to England's Lake District, whose idyllic hills and glens normally swarm with hikers.
In the face of farmers' unease about the cull, officials announced Friday that chief veterinarian Jim Scudamore would travel to affected areas Monday to speak to farmers.
"The national farming organizations, who have been in very close touch, understand its need and although they find it terribly distressing recognize the need for it," said junior agriculture minister Baroness Hayman.
"Individuals affected need to understand it too, which is what we hope to achieve over the next few days," she added.
Police in the Lake District county of Cumbria said Friday they had confiscated firearms from a farmer who allegedly threatened veterinary officials who came to cull his livestock.
It is unclear how many livestock will be killed under the "slaughter on suspicion" scheme. National Farmers' Union leader Ben Gill set the number at more than 1-million, but Scudamore said it would be about 500,000, including more than 200,000 animals already condemned.
A highly contagious livestock ailment, foot-and-mouth disease poses no threat to humans. But when it strikes countries or trade blocs that had previously been certified as free of the disease _ such as Britain and the rest of the European Union _ it can have disastrous commercial consequences.
Countries around the world have banned imports of meat and animals from Europe, and EU countries have imposed their own restrictions. Portugal and Spain said late Friday that any movement of animals between the two countries would require a special permit.