NFU president at the time, Sir Ben Gill, was one of the major figures of the foot-and-mouth crisis. Here, his son Ed Gill tells Hannah Binns how his dad handled the huge pressure and why the family remains proud of the role he played.
The Gill family, who farmed cattle, sheep, cereals and potatoes near Easingwold, Yorkshire, found themselves at the epicentre of the foot-and-mouth crisis as their late father, Sir Ben Gill, dominated the national news agenda through his influential role as NFU president.
Talking to Farmers Guardian, Sir Ben’s son Ed Gill, who was 18 at the time and studying his A-levels, described the family experience as ‘fairly intense’ but added they were always a very close family unit.
He said: “As a family, we were used to Dad being at the eye of the storm through his NFU roles and had
become accustomed to him being involved in political issues and problems, and the subsequent pressures and attentions which came with it, such as BSE a few years earlier.
“But foot-and-mouth was a different level and we all did our best to rally round and support him as best as we could.
“I remember the moment Dad took a call on February 17. We knew it was something serious as they called the home landline on a weekend.
“I asked what it was and he said potentially a case of foot-and-mouth.”
One contentious issue was the introduction of a vaccination, which the NFU lobbied hard against.
“The vaccination question was the trickiest one and at one point he talked about chaining himself to farms which were going to be vaccinated as he felt passionately vaccination was not the right way to go, despite all the pressure from outside of Government and even royalty,” he said.
“There were also growing questions about whether the NFU should have been more militant.
“As you might expect, there were sections of media who were increasingly critical as the crisis dragged on.
“He felt that approach was a dead end and would do more harm than good in the long run – particularly in the middle of a national crisis – both in terms of the Government needing the NFU’s expertise and in terms of keeping the wider public on the side of the farming industry.
“Dad had a direct connection with the realities of running a working farm in the 1990s and 2000s, throughout his time as NFU president.
“In quieter times, he would spend all week in London dealing with high-level policies at the NFU, but at the weekend he was focused on running the farm.
“That connection shaped his own response to the crisis.”
While Sir Ben’s sons Adam, Robin, Oliver and Ed explored different careers to farming, they all recognise how formative it was to be a part of the farming world growing up.
“We take a lot of pride from our roots and our dad’s role. Our experiences on the farm have affected our attitude in how we approach things,” Mr Gill said.
“It has shaped us as individuals and given us more perspective.
“Dad definitely had a role in my interest in politics. I grew up aware of the discussion behind the scenes and was exposed to people at the sharp end of the political spectrum from a young age during family visits to the Farmers Club or NFU Christmas drinks.”
Mr Gill said he felt proud of his dad, who died in 2014 aged 64, for his work ethic and determination to fight for farmers affected by the outbreak.
“Foot-and-mouth came six or seven miles from the farm, so we were lucky not to be caught up, but he did not shy away from farmers who were directly affected and was out there speaking to people on the ground and trying to make a difference.
“He cared so much about the industry’s future and understood the science and wider trends, which he used to problem solve within the Government machinery.
“He wanted to be in the thick of it because he felt he had the right answers and could contribute and serve industry, with a longer-term approach to many of his decisions."