The horseworld need not grind to a halt in the face of an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) or infectious equine disease, say vets taking part in a simulated outbreak.

Defra, Animal Health and the Scottish and Welsh governments mocked-up a real-time outbreak of FMD on 9-10 November.

“Operation Silver Birch” imagined an outbreak of FMD in Northallerton, North Yorks, that swiftly spread.

Although Operation Silver Birch was just an exercise, it demonstrated Defra’s wish to allow businesses to continue trading, except those in the 3km protective zone around an infected property.

Vet and retired chief executive of the Horse Trust Brigadier Paul Jepson was equestrianism’s representative on the operation.

He told H&H: “The 2001 FMD outbreak closed down much of the countryside for months, which achieved nothing — Defra is not going to do that again.

“Although FMD is not an equine disease [the exercise] gave me confidence that they can deal efficiently with an equine disease outbreak.”

In a break from previous protocol, Defra allowed local authorities more responsibility for deciding what restrictions should be in place in their areas.

A dummy press statement put out by Defra as part of the exercise stated that footpaths and bridleways across the infected premises were closed, but within the protection zone horses could still move, with a licence.

Outside the protection zone, it was “business as usual”.

But Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons president Peter Jinman, who observed the exercise, said although horse activities would not be officially banned, it may be inappropriate for them to carry on.

“Horse owners would need to be sympathetic to the needs of their farming neighbours,” said Mr Jinman.

During the 2007 outbreak, horse owners imposed their own restrictions and precautions.

He called for an exercise based on an outbreak of exotic horse disease, like West Nile Virus or African Horse Sickness.

“Unlike FMD, the majority of equine diseases have an insect vector [carrier] and the horseworld is very different from agriculture,” added Mr Jinman.

Hunting would still come to a halt as soon as an FMD outbreak was suspected.

Defra and Animal Health did not wish to comment in detail about operation Silver Birch.

An official report will be released early next year.

This article was first published in the current issue of Horse & Hound, 18 November ’10