The Government’s contiguous cill was a ’truly brutal’ response to the escalating 2001 foot-and-mouth crisis which still weighs heavily on the minds of those involved, National Sheep Association chief executive, Phil Stocker, has said.
More than 5.2 million sheep were slaughtered for disease control and welfare reasons by the end of the crisis, according to Defra statistics.
It also potentially threatened the future of some of our iconic breeds, such as the Herdwick.
Mr Stocker said: “When foot-and-mouth hit in February 2001, the nation was unprepared – 57 farms were infected before the disease was confirmed.
“The contiguous cull was truly brutal with many healthy animals being slaughtered, valuable bloodlines lost and sometimes generations of stock breeding and farming left on the pyres.”
Christopher Price, chief executive of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST), who worked as a lawyer for the CLA during the crisis, added it was hard to overstate how catastrophic the crisis was, with breeders left distraught as herds and flocks which they had devoted their whole lives to destroyed in a matter of hours.
He said: “It had a severe impact on native breeds which have developed a strong local connection, because it was concentrated in those parts of the country, primarily the south west and north of England, where they tend to be found.
“Breeds of sheep such as the Cheviot, Grey-Faced Dartmoor and Lonk really suffered.
“While there was some recognition of the need to avoid killing genetically important animals, it was often ignored in favour of a desire to cull.”
Genetically important stock was often compensated at well below its true value, compensation for culls on welfare grounds was limited and there was no compensation at all for stock which could not be marketed at the right time due to movement restrictions.
“It underlined Government’s indifference to the importance of genetic conservation compared with restoring production,” Mr Price said.
“The one big legacy from the crisis is the recognition of the importance of securing genetics through resources like the RBST’s gene bank, which now allows us to secure the future for most breeds.
“The crisis should have also brought home some of the problems associated with intensive farming, the vital importance of biosecurity and the need to minimise animal transports, but I query whether it really has.”
One breed hit hard was the Herdwick, with an estimated 18,000 sheep (30 per cent of the breed’s total flock) culled.
Amanda Carson, secretary of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association, said: “An entire generation of Herdwicks were lost as hoggs away for wintering were trapped on holdings in hotspot areas and caught up in the culling processes.
“When one Herdwick hill farm in Cumbria was identified as an infected premises, there was fear among farmers that foot-and-mouth could spread across the fells and wipe out all Herdwick flocks.
“ We formed the charity The Sheep Trust and began collecting embryos and semen from some of the best Herdwick flocks in Cumbria under no restrictions to put into storage so that if the breed was wiped out, we could help regenerate our flocks."
About 2,196 semen samples from rams over 13 farms, as well as 178 viable embryos from 59 ewes, were collected.
“It was quite an operation and other breed societies which felt threatened, such as Lonks, Dalesbred and Portlands, got in touch so we were able to form the first sheep gene bank in the country," Ms Carson added.
She said in the years following foot-and-mouth, farmers drafted fewer Herdwicks off the fells to replace that lost generation and highlighted it took a farmer who lost their flock seven years and seven miles of fencing on the fells to rebuild a properly hefted flock.
Mr Stocker said since the UK regained recognition as free from foot-and-mouth, there have rarely been months when the outbreak has not been mentioned in policy circles, with many meetings and exercises held to agree strategies and run scenarios to make sure industry is more prepared.
“Traceability of livestock is a key part of this and its one good reason why investment has been made, and is ongoing, into the new Livestock Information Programme so that movements can be tracked and are as real time as possible,” Mr Stocker said.
“It is also a good reason why it is essential for services such as traceability to be connected and integrated across all our GB nations – diseases and trade operate on a whole island basis.”