A helpline offering advice to farmers and those affected by the foot and mouth outbreak across Wales has seen an increase in calls from people who are suicidal.

The service, run by North East Wales trust but extended to all of Wales last week, is an extension of its existing mental health helpline.

Normally, it would get five or six calls a month where the staff are sure the person is serious about taking their own life. In the past month this has risen to 22.

In the first two weeks of March, 10 per cent of all calls were farming related. 'A lot of it is information calls, like: 'Can I move my sheep from this field to the next?', ' said manager Janet Roberts. 'We give them referrals to the right service, but we have had to work hard to talk to them about how they are feeling. It is not something that comes easily to them.'

North Cumbria health authority has extended an existing helpline to run 24 hours a day, funded by a£20,000 health action zone grant. 'They have had around 50 calls a day, ' said a spokesperson.

'It varies massively, from something like: 'I am stuck on the farm and need somebody to get my prescription' to someone who just wanted to talk to someone while their cattle were being shot.'

The HA has highlighted potential hazards caused by the disposal of dead animals. Director of public health Dr Peter Tiplady advised people in areas where carcasses are being burned to stay indoors with windows shut and avoid the smoke as much as possible.

'The potential risk from smoke has been largely related to the triggering of asthma attacks in susceptible people and the possible exacerbation of breathing difficulties for people with existing respiratory diseases, ' he said. Risks from inhaling dioxins released into the air during burning were 'extremely small', as was the risk of airborne spread of BSE and CJD from cattle being incinerated.

The trust has been approached by a private company to provide specialist support for agricultural workers involved in the slaughter, and a taskforce is meeting weekly to discuss problems.

'One health visitor is having to visit an infected farm at the end of the day and is then disinfecting, ' said the spokesman. 'We may have to have specialised teams who just go on to in fec ted farms .'

North and East Devon HA is setting up a 24-hour helpline as well as a farming advice and support team (FAST) of senior nurses and psychiatrists who can visit farms.

Wales Rural Stress Line:

0800 0858119.

Cumbria Stress Information Network:01768 862171.