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Foot-and-mouth 20 Years On: Generations of farmers reflect on their foot-and-mouth experiences

This year marks 20 years since the foot-and-mouth crisis which devastated rural Britain. In this special look back, Hannah Binns talks to those who lived through the crisis and how it changed farming lives and wider agriculture.

 

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Foot-and-mouth 20 Years On: Generations of farmers reflect on their foot-and-mouth experiences

The dark days of the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak impacted farmers of all ages, from those still in education to those at the peak of their farming career.

 

It was a disease which brought panic, despair and confusion to the farming industry, as the full horror of the disease and the effort to get it under control emerged.

 

Rural Britain also came to a standstill, with auction marts shut and footpaths off limits for the public.

 

At 35, Robin Spence was at the peak of his farming career at Roberthill, Lockerbie, but became one of the first Scottish foot-and-mouth cases.

 

Mr Spence, who was involved with NFU Scotland at the time, said: “It felt like a punch in the stomach when the first case in Scotland was confirmed on March 1, less than one mile away.


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“Our worst nightmare came true on March 19, when our beef cattle showed clinical signs which were quickly confirmed by the ministry vet.”

 

Mr Spence said the next few hours were a blur of preparing 621 cattle, 686 sheep and numerous lambs for slaughter, amid emotions of shock, anger and disbelief.

 

But slaughtering his pedigree Holstein herd, which had been rebuilt after the 1952 foot-and-mouth outbreak, together with hundreds of sheep and lambs, brought Mr Spence to his lowest and darkest point.

 

He reiterated his gratitude to all those people who treated his animals and himself with compassion.

 

He said: “We went from a bustling farmyard to lighting the pyres and a silent empty vacuum within 48 hours.

 

“A rage descended on me against those whose negligence had allowed this awful disease into our herds and flocks.

 

“Twenty years later, it is our duty to make sure political leaders do not forget the importance of protecting our borders, our priceless national resources and our communities.

 

“The parallels with the Covid-19 pandemic are frighteningly similar and I believe quicker action in shutting our borders and limiting movement earlier would have saved so many lives, both in 2001 and 2020.”

 

Trapped

 

 

North Devon farmers Bryan and Liz Griffiths, who were 39 and 40, respectively, at the time, recalled being ‘absolutely trapped’ by the lockdown restrictions which were in place.

 

Reflecting on that time, Mrs Griffiths said: “All our stock, 700 in-lamb ewes and 110 cattle were on a small acreage which had become waterlogged due to the rainfall.

 

“It was traumatic. We even called the RSPCA and told them we had a welfare crisis, but there was nothing they could do.”

 

Mrs Griffiths added she remembered ‘very few’ dates in her life, but her animals were culled on April 13-14.

 

She said: “We stayed with every single one for a day-and-a-half, then I went into the garden and cried afterwards. It felt like I was no longer a farmer anymore as there was no livestock.

 

“The next morning was eerie as we went from peak lambing to a silent farmyard, but one strength was a lot of people were in the same boat as us, so we could talk to them on the phone.

 

“Shockingly, our stock were left in the sheds and yard for nine days before a pyre was built and lit, highlighting the incompetencies and disjointedness of the Government operation.

 

“We also tried our hardest not to burden our teenage children with the horrors of what was going on, but they were very supportive and understood the severity of the situation.

 

“We were determined to restock and get back to where we were, which we achieved by the end of August, but it took two years for get our pastures back into production.”

 

 

Worrying

 

 

NFU Cymru county adviser Stella Owen was 19 at the time.

 

She remembered worrying about bringing foot-and-mouth to the farm six miles from Brecon when she came home from Aberystwyth University for lambing.

 

She said: “Because of movement restrictions, we were lambing outdoors in three different locations, one of which was next to the A40, near the Epynt range, where lorries were hauling up carcases to a pyre.

 

“Knowing people’s livelihoods were on the back of those lorries was extremely difficult, but all you could do was do the best for your stock.

 

“It was absolutely horrendous and you were also worried for the farming families around you. I never wish to see that again.”

 

Home

 

 

Studying for his GCSEs at the time, Joe Stanley, a mixed farmer from Leicestershire, recalled being pulled out of a biology lesson by the deputy head and taken home by his parents when the news broke.

 

He said: “I did not understand the implications and we were not allowed to leave the farm.

 

“After a couple of weeks my parents relented and let me go back to school, although I had to be picked up and brought back by someone else.

 

“I remember my parents were absolutely terrified their high performing dairy herd and pedigree herd of Longhorns would get caught up and were in constant fear of anyone bringing it to the farm.

 

“At one point, it was four miles away and we feared the worst, but thankfully it did not come any closer.”

Foot-and-mouth crisis in figures

  • The epidemic lasted 32 weeks.
  • A total of 10,157 premises were affected by the disease.
  • Tourism sector estimated losses between £4.5 billion to £5.4bn.
  • A total of 6.456 million animals were slaughtered in the UK for disease control and welfare reasons, made up of 5,249,000 sheep, 758,000 cattle and 449,000 pigs.
  • More than 10,000 vets, soldiers, field and support staff, assisted by thousands more working for contractors, were involved at the height of the crisis.
  • Total estimated cost to the public sector was more than £3bn.
  • Estimated compensation and other farmers to farmers was £1.4bn.

 

Source: Defra and National Audit Office 2002 report.

Key dates of the 2001 foot-and-mouth crisis

February 19 - Veterinary surgeon Craig Kirby finds signs of FMD during a routine inspection of pigs at Cheale Meats abattoir in Little Warley, Essex.

 

February 20 – Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) confirms the outbreak. The abattoir and two farm suppliers have five-mile animal exclusion zones imposed.

 

February 21 – European Commission imposes a worldwide ban on all exports from Britain of livestock, meat and animal products.

 

February 23 – MAFF Agriculture Minister Nick Brown orders seven-day ban on all farm livestock movements. MAFF also identifies FMD case at Heddon-on-the-Wall pig farm, Northumberland, and speculates this was the original ’focus’.

 

February 24 - First mass slaughter involving thousands of pigs and cattle starts on eight farms across England.

 

February 27 - Local authorities, which had powers to close footpaths in ’infected areas’, receive emergency powers to close all footpaths and rights of way throughout the ’controlled area’ (the whole of Great Britain).

 

March 1 First cases in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

 

March 11 - MAFF Agriculture Minister Nick Brown insists ’the disease is now under control...we are eliminating it’ in a television interview.

 

March 11 - March 13 - MAFF arranges for carcases to be transported to a rendering plant in Widnes as an alternative to burning.

 

March 15 – MAFF adopts a policy of contiguous cull, which meant animals within three kilometres of known cases would be slaughtered.

 

March 16 - MAFF Agriculture Minister Nick Brown clarifies the contiguous cull policy only applies to sheep, not pig or cows.

 

March 20 - NFU president Sir Ben Gill spends an hour at 10 Downing Street pleading with PM Tony Blair to speed up the slaughter and disposal process.

 

March 22 - Tony Blair visits Cumbria and is shocked by the scale of slaughter, admitting Government now had to 'massively gear up the scale of the challange'.

 

March 26 - First piles of dead sheep were buried into a new burial pit for half a million carcases on a disused airfield at Great Orton.

 

March 27 - MAFF Agriculture Minister Nick Brown confirms in Parliament that new slaughter targets of 24 hours for ’infected premises’ and 48 hours for ’contiguous premises’ had been agreed.

 

March 28 - MAFF asks Brussels for permission to vaccinate in Cumbria and Devon.

 

March 29 - Brussels gives permission to vaccinate but farm leaders lobby PM to show the cull policy is working, causing Tony Blair to delay the decision whether to implement vaccination.

 

April 2 – Tony Blair postpones elections (until June 7) in light of the ‘feelings and sensitives’ of people in affected areas.

 

April 12 - Secret Chequers meeting on vaccination.

 

April 13 – PM learns number of animals awaiting disposal was nearing a million and the MAFF were falling short of their 48 hour target for culling contiguous farms.

 

April 25 - MAFF Agriculture Minister Nick Brown, along with Prof. Anderson, pulls rug on Blair’s vaccination plan to MPs.

 

May 17 – The first time in three months no single case of FMD had been confirmed anywhere in the country.

 

July 27 - Mass-cull on Brecon Beacons

 

August 10– Ministers ignore calls for a full-scale inquiry into the handling of the outbreak. Three separate inquiries are announced.

 

August 19 – Six-month mark with 3.75 million animals slaughtered.

 

September 11 - Scotland designated as a provisionally free area.

 

September 30 – Last confirmed case in England found in animals in a field near Little Asby, Appleby, Cumbria.

 

January 14, 2002 – Britain declares itself officially free of FMD following no outbreaks for three months and negative tests on sheep flocks in Northumberland.

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