By Julie Wheldon, PA News

Farmers leaders in the South West tonight called on the Environment Agency to "face facts" as the foot-and-mouth carcass mountain in Devon neared 200,000.

The South West National Farmers' Union said the Environment Agency needs to be far more flexible in allowing on-farm burials, as the number of slaughtered animals awaiting disposal was growing every day.

The union said it had received countless calls from grief-stricken and angry farmers who, having endured the slaughter of their healthy animals, are now having to watch bodies decompose a few feet from their homes.

Anthony Gibson, regional director of the NFU, called on the environment Agency to face facts.

He said: "The stench is so bad in some parts of Devon that they are becoming virtually uninhabitable."

"The situation is medieval in its awfulness and is totally intolerable."

He said the Environment Agency told the Prime Minister it would give decisions on on-farm burial sites within three hours.

But Mr Gibson said: "It appears that the decision is always virtually `no'."

He went on: "At the end of the day, which is the lesser evil?

"Banning on-farm burials may prevent some small or theoretical risk of pollution, but leaving huge numbers of carcasses to putrefy where they fall must surely represent a far higher risk to the environment and health, not the mention the emotional trauma it is causing.

"The Government has got to treat this as an emergency and do whatever it takes to rid Devon of this hideous heap of death."

Ben Woodhouse, spokesman for the Environment Agency, said: "We do appreciate the situation and we realise it is very distressing for people, but we also have a duty to protect the environment.

"We are doing our utmost to make sure we deal with this as quickly as possible but there are very few places in Devon where burial is available.

"We have to make sure there is no legacy of pollution of farms, rivers and water supplies as the bodies compose.

"We are not wilfully trying to obstruct things but we have to make sure once foot-and-mouth is over we don't face further pollution from carcasses as they break down."