THE slaughter of up to a million sheep, pig and goats was starting today (March 16) in a bid to eradicate foot-and-mouth disease.

The Government has ordered the mass cull of healthy animals within a two mile radius of infected farms in Cumbria and south-west Scotland.

Vets from the Ministry of Agriculture will also start daily inspections of farms in Devon, another of the worst affected areas.

National Farmers' Union president Ben Gill said the pre-emptive cull was appalling but claimed the "silence of the lambs" crackdown was necessary.

Mr Gill said: "We have to eradicate the disease by a very vigorous slaughter and destruction policy.

"That must be the key aim to stay on top of this disease and stop it spreading outwards and eventually remove it from Britain."

As the number of foot-and-mouth cases rose to 251 yesterday, Agriculture Minister Baroness Hayman insisted there was no alternative to the slaughter.

She also said there were a total of 55 million livestock animals in Britain.

Baroness Hayman said: "We are not talking about taking out the whole of the national herd or the national flock."

But Andrew Spence, regional co-ordinator for Farmers For Action in the North-East, warned the slaughter of healthy animals would cause a "rural revolt".

He said: "Farmers up here will not tolerate anyone coming in and slaughtering animals that are not infected."