Agriculture ministers are facing legal action by the National Farmers' Union for wrongly slaughtering thousands of healthy animals during the foot and mouth crisis.
Senior officials in the NFU have revealed they are preparing to sue the Ministry of Agriculture for damages in dozens of cases where unaffected livestock was unnecessarily slaughtered or killed by mistake.
Martin Haworth, the union's director of policy, said it was "very likely" that the NFU would take action. "I think there will be a series of test cases and then possibly a series of class actions, depending on the results of the test cases," he said.
This threat by the NFU marks the most serious breakdown so far in the relationship it has had with Maff. Ministers believe that the industry has been well compensated by the Government. They also privately feel that some farmers have exploited the foot and mouth crisis and helped to promote the disease by illegally moving livestock.
By late last week, Maff had paid out nearly £600m in compensation for slaughtered animals about £100m more than the annual value of Britain's meat export trade which the mass slaughter of 3.2m animals during the foot and mouth crisis was designed to protect. Yesterday afternoon, Maff announced six further cases, taking the UK total to 1,680.
But many farmers believe Maff is to blame for slaughtering animals which were not affected. About a third of suspected cases have proven to be clear of the disease. As a result, Maff is facing a separate batch of similar legal actions from hundreds of farmers and rural businesses. These are being co-ordinated by two legal firms in the south-west of England. One of the solicitor's firms, Burges Salmon from Bristol, is working with a land agents company in Cumbria to contact every farmer involved in the 1,487 cases in England and Wales asking if they wish to sue. The first batch of letters to about 700 farmers in Cumbria, Northumberland and North Yorkshire went out last week.
The NFU and the legal firms are focusing on cases such as the accidental slaughter of 1,200 animals at Otterburn Hall Farm near Settle last month. Maff admitted that soldiers involved in the culling process went to the wrong fields.
William Neville, a solicitor with Burges Salmon, said their cases would involve direct compensation claims to Maff for direct losses from mistaken and unnecessary culling. But their cases would also include claims by rural businesses for "consequential losses" of income because of the collapse in the livestock trade and closure of the countryside.
The firm will also co-ordinate direct complaints to the Parliamentary Ombudsman claiming maladministration in cases where Maff allegedly ignored or broke their own policies on culling.
Burges Salmon has also hired epidemiologists to build up evidence that Maff's failure to cull and bury animals in Cumbria within 48 hours led to foot and mouth spreading far quicker than it might have done.
Mr Neville would not speculate on the value of the likely claims, but said: "There is quite a mass of evidence which suggest that things should have been done a lot differently in terms of disease control. As a result, a lot of farmers and other businesses have suffered losses which they should not have done."
Maff refused to comment last night since it had not been notified of any legal proceedings by the NFU or other legal firms. "Lawyers being lawyers, ours won't comment on anything until they've received something on paper," a spokeswoman said.