European Union veterinary experts have left in place a ban on livestock exports from Northern Ireland following the discovery there of two new cases of foot and mouth over the weekend. The European Commission said that the ban would provisionally last until May 18, the same date as the current ban on the rest of the UK. In another development, private practice vets are being drafted in to help the North's Department of Agriculture in its efforts to contain foot and mouth disease.

With speculation growing that the latest outbreaks were caused by the illegal movement of sheep, the Agriculture Minister, Bríd Rodgers, said that she would be writing to farmers to urge them to provide information about market purchases. Mrs Rodgers appeared before a Stormont committee this morning to explain her Department's policies in fighting the disease. Michael Fisher of our Northern staff.

Outlining her Department's response to the foot and mouth crisis, the Agriculture Minister revealed that there are an estimated three million sheep in the North. Questioned about the importation of sheep from Longtown mart in Cumbria in the two weeks in February before the first outbreak in Britain, Bríd Rodgers said that 99 animals had been brought in during that period and were not slaughtered.

However, DUP Assembly member Gardiner Kane claimed that up to 14,000 sheep had been brought in an all had been scanned. He claimed that those who were expecting lambs had been taken to marts at Swatragh in County Derry and Martinstown in County Antrim. Mrs Rodgers said that a number of sheep had been brought in in January. Mr Kane said that he would pass on the details to the Minister.

Mrs Rodgers also told the Agriculture committee that the main line of defence against the disease was the farm gate. She defended the level of checks for traffic crossing the border into the North. She will be speaking to her opposite number in Dublin, Joe Walsh, later today.