A PRICELESS herd of bulls, which were sealed into an airtight barn to protect them from foot-and-mouth, have been released after 18 weeks in isolation.
The 140 bulls, which are owned by the Duke of Westminster, were locked into a specially-sealed unit in March at the height of the foot-and-mouth crisis.
Filtered oxygen was pumped into huge sealed tents on the Duke's Grosvenor estate in the hope that the bulls would be exempt from slaughter if an outbreak occurred within five kilometres.
Staff carers from Chester-based breeding company, Cogent, including vets and studmen, were sealed in with the bulls on a rota basis for weeks at a time.
The Holstein bulls are valued at millions of pounds because they produce high-quality semen for breeding programmes throughout the UK and for export to the United States, Australia and Europe.
With restrictions across the county lifted by Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs officials last week, the seals have been removed and life is gradually returning to normal for the Holstein herd.
But they are still segregated from the 2,500 other cattle on the site and the company is taking no chances.
A new case of the disease struck in Glazebury, near Warrington, two weeks ago.
Cogent's managing director Tim Heywood said: "When we sealed them up, foot-and-mouth was getting closer all the time.
"But Warrington is a considerable distance away and the outbreak there is not at a level where it is immediately threatening to us."
He added: "It is also important that the bulls are in a healthy environment, which means plenty of fresh air. During the worst weeks of the outbreak, we had to compromise on this for the sake of protecting them from infection."
Cheshire was due to be declared disease-free by the end of the month but the infection of 380 cattle at Glazebury has prompted fears that the epidemic could drag on into the winter.
Since the crisis began, all exports have ceased and Cogent is limiting its sales to uninfected areas in Britain.
At the first sign of the virus spreading farther across the county, the sheeting around the barns will go back up and the bulls will once again come under 24 hour surveillance.
Mr Heywood said: "We are still maintaining a high level of security.
"The bulls are being kept separate from all the other cattle and movement is not allowed.
"We are being very careful with people and vehicles and the bulls are being kept in the building. Even when foot-and-mouth is a distant memory, we will still maintain restrictions."
Last week, more than 800 farms in Northwich, Knutsford and Macclesfield, infected during the second wave of the virus in May, were given the all-clear.
If the new case at Warrington remains isolated, the county could finally be declared footand-mouth free by mid-October.