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Foot-and-mouth 20 Years On: How did the crisis affect those in the veterinary profession?

For many farmers caught up in the foot-and-mouth crisis, vets were sometimes ‘seen as part of the enemy’ for their active role in delivering Government’s blood-testing and cull policy. But their experience was equally harrowing.

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Foot-and-mouth 20 Years On: How did the crisis affect those in the veterinary profession?

Aged just 23 and studying an animal science degree at the University of Leeds, Phillipa Page, a sheep veterinarian for Flock Health and farmer based in Gloucestershire, responded to a call from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) requesting help processing licence movements.


But, in June, Ms Page began sampling animals on farms, which were then slaughtered afterwards, in Gisburn, Settle and Hawes.


Ms Page said: “It was the first experience of how serious it was and the white suits we had to wear added a further layer of stress and barrier to conversation for farmers.


“Understandably, we were seen as part of the enemy, but I was taken aback by the level of hospitality still shown by the farmers, such as being invited in for lunch and tea despite our role in taking away their livelihoods.


“Their innate ability to care for people as well as stock confirmed to me this was the industry I wanted to work in.”

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Ms Page then moved to Wales later that month to continue the work, covering Cardiff to Builth Wells.


She said: “Once you were on a farm which tested positive or stock showed clinical signs of foot-and-mouth, you could only go to farms which were going to be culled as there was a chance you could spread it.


“That day was the most stressful day of the farmer’s life and some were very upset and did not want us on the farm.


“You could see the pressure farmers were under, but despite that most of them felt a responsibility to their stock and had to be the ones handling them and leading them to slaughter.


“It was horrific and, as we were doing it once or twice a day at different farms for months, it became very emotionally draining and numbing.


“I remember one Friday there was a pile of 700 sheep and I was asked by the slaughterman to go and assess that all the animals were deceased. I definitely cried that night.”






Ms Page added there was a sense of camaraderie among those working on the culls since new graduates, farm vets and students had never dealt with situations like that before.


“The politicians may have been in Westminster making policy decisions, but we were the ones on numerous farms throughout March and April deciding whether it would be less stressful to separate newborn lambs and their mums and which to kill first, or whether to kill them together.”


“It was really hard and we had to be confident in our decisions and not think too deeply about what you were doing.


“It was all about minimising the stress for the farmer and the stock, rather than us.”





Working on the culls helped Ms Page gain a place at veterinary school at Liverpool and gave her skills which she uses every single day.


Ms Page said: “It taught me how to blood sample, how to communicate and engage with farmers, read body language, build trust and empathise.


“But talking about the experience still makes me emotional 20 years later and every time I drive past those farms in Wales, there is always a lump in my throat.”



Ruth Vernon, Vet 1 Consultancy, spent a month in Cumbria at the worst time of the outbreak and recalled seeing things which will haunt her forever.


Ms Vernon said: “One dairy farm had lost its main herd and thought its heifers would be safe away on another farm.


“But sadly, during the cull of their hefted ewes, some sheep escaped and were seen close to where these heifers were housed a few weeks later.


“Some of the heifers caught foot-and-mouth, so we had to then cull the genetics that the farmer had desperately wanted to retain.


“It was devastating for the farm and sad that we needed to take that action.”




Ms Vernon added she had received criticism from local colleagues in East Anglia for putting livestock in her area at risk when she came home.


“However, I would never have done that and took time out for myself. I often wonder how my car survived the amount of disinfectant it received," Ms Vernon said.


"I have total respect for the official veterinarian who spotted the unusual lesions in the Essex abattoir.


"I hope that surveillance will always be in place to spot any novel disease incursions in the future and that one of the lessons we have learned is how key a National Disease Surveillance system is in any control measures.


"I also hope science will win over politics, and scientists will be listened to."





But it was not just farmers caught up with foot-and-mouth who suffered, with numerous people shutting themselves off from their communities in fear that the disease would hit their farm, as well as the untold pressures of coping with movement restrictions and loss of export markets.


Amanda Carson, a former vet at St Bridget’s Centre, Cumbria, who dealt with the ‘huge logistical nightmare’ for farmers unaffected by the disease, said: “There was a terrible fear, anxiety and uncertainty among the farming community and I remember talking farmers out of suicide.


“Farmers were very wary of where you had been and, in some cases, were scared to leave the local area, so my house became a drop-off point to collect medicines.


“All livestock movements needed a licence, which meant we had to go out and inspect individual stock.


“We were blood-testing thousands of in-lamb sheep a day to demonstrate they were free of disease and could be moved to another field for grazing.”





Iain Richards, now a veterinary ecologist in Cumbria, worked in Carlisle as a Temporary Veterinary Inspector during the foot-and-mouth crisis.


He said there was light among the darkness, such as the kindness of farmers when destroying their livelihoods.


Mr Richards said: "The touches of humanity from senior Defra vets who adapted policy to help a terminally-ill farmer.


"The spontaneous hugs I got from my staff when I came back to the practise."


He added Government used two novel policies in an attempt to speed up control of FMD in 2001.




"These were the 3km cull and the contiguous cull," Mr Richards said.


"The latter relied on mathematical modelling that made an incorrect judgement on how the Type O virus was excreted by animals.


"Critically, they assumed a perfect radial spread and classified any farms touching an IP as an automatic Dangerous Contact.


"In Cumbria this was not applied, as we were able to use a team of experienced vets to determine the true dangerous contacts.


"It is notable that both the policies were applied after the peak of infection and made no difference other than killing more animals than was necessary."




Scotland’s Chief Veterinary Officer, Sheila Voas, said all parts of industry suffered tremendously and many still bear the scars 20 years on.


"I have farming friends who mark the passage of time as “before FMD” and “since FMD” and there are plenty of vets still traumatised by what they saw, and did, to control the epidemic," Ms Voas said.


"It is also important to remember it was not just those who lost animals to the disease that suffered.


"In many ways those waiting at home looking after their livestock had just as tough a time, never knowing if or when the disease might reach them and coping with movement restrictions and loss of export markets.


"Many shut themselves off from their communities to try to protect their livestock, in a way that has strange parallels with Covid-19, during which people have isolated themselves again, this time to protect themselves and their relatives."




But she said while rules may be seen as burdensome and bureaucratic, for those who remember the foot-and-mouth crisis, there is an understanding of why livestock standstills are necessary and why biosecurity is important at all stages of animal production.


"I personally still have nightmares about that time and remember with real horror having to tell a dairy farmer that all his cows – genetics built up over generations – were going to be slaughtered; and the futility I felt lambing ewes knowing that both they and their lambs would be killed in a matter of hours, while still wanting to do my best for them as individuals to prevent needless suffering," Ms Voas said.


"While my team can implement legislation for recording animal movements and standstills, prohibit the feeding of swill and work with other government departments to protect our international borders, individuals and companies can make sure that their biosecurity is good enough.


"Then, even if the worst does happen and the disease gets through our defences, it does not have the chance to spread to other animals as quickly as it did in 2001."


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