A horse rescue centre has been closed and placed in quarantine after the death of a mule and a donkey.

Bosses at the Sussex Horse Rescue Trust at Hempstead Farm in Uckfield believe a disease is responsible for the deaths.

Volunteers and staff at the centre have posted signs up along public rights of way across their fields.

They want the Government to close public footpaths in the area over fears the disease could spread.

Pauline Grant, chairwoman of the centre, said: "Some time back we had a little seven-year-old mule, which had no past medical history, drop dead.

"We did some investigations with our vet but there was no apparent cause. Three weeks later a donkey from the same area was showing symptoms of flu."

The vet was called and the donkey was given medication and recovered.

A week ago another donkey, again seemingly fit and healthy, dropped dead. The trust's vet Duncan Harrison told the centre it would have to close to visitors on Friday and took further blood tests from other animals to discover what the disease is.

The results of these have yet to come back and until then the centre has to remain closed with staff sticking to strict self-imposed infection controls.

As there are public rights of way across the fields of the centre, staff and volunteers are worried members of the public may inadvertently spread the disease.

Mrs Grant said: "We're not having visitors but we haven't got the right to close the footpaths.

"It makes a mockery of our quarantine."

Mr Harrison said: "The quarantine is a precautionary measure and we are being very cautious.

"We don't want to spread the disease around and that's why we put the quarantine in place."

Mrs Grant added that because the problem, which centre staff believe could be equine flu, affected animals not in the food chain, Government officials at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) were reluctant to close the paths.

A Defra spokeswoman said: "Equine flu is not notifiable in the UK nor in any other country in Europe. There are no statutory controls in dealing with equine flu.

"Furthermore, there has long been an effective commercial vaccine against the disease which most equine owners have made use of. Therefore it's a matter for industry."

She confirmed the department would not be closing the footpaths.

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