How foot and mouth changed one farmer’s outlook on life

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To mark 260 years of The Yorkshire Post we are catching up with ordinary people who hit the headlines. Today Sarah Freeman returns to the Dales farm first hit by foot and mouth.

Raygill House Farm, near Hawes, looks much as it did when William Lambert’s parents bought the land back in the 1960s.

One field is dotted with grass bales ready to make silage, another just down the road is home to a large herd of cows and from the highest point the views across Wensleydale are as spectacular as they always were. However, there is one crucial difference. William and his wife Claire no longer own any of the grazing livestock; instead they operate as an agricultural equivalent of one of the nearby bed and breakfasts.

The change of direction didn’t happen as a direct result of foot and mouth, but the 2001 crisis, which saw the countryside declared a no-go zone, was a wake-up call for the Lamberts.

March 6 of that year, is a date forever etched in their mind. That morning - just over a fortnight after the first exclusion zone had been placed around an abattoir in Essex - the farm became the 82 confirmed case in the UK and one of the first two in Yorkshire. A later report confirmed the Lamberts had taken all the necessary precautions - they had been meticulous about disinfecting the wheels of their milk tanker and even the postman had been asked to leave the mail at the main road. They were, it concluded, just unlucky.

“We were prepared as you could be,” says Claire. “Like every other farming family we’d been watching the disaster unfold and quite quickly it became clear that it was only a matter of time before it arrived in Yorkshire.

“What did surprise us though was just how quickly it spread. First we noticed one cow was slathering at the mouth and that was it, another went down and then another. It was awful to see. The skin was coming off their tongues, their udders and feet were sore. Of course they had to carry out tests to be sure, but even before the results came back we knew what they were going to tell us.”

There was only one option. The Lambert’s 97 dairy cattle and 160 sheep would have to be slaughtered and the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food began making the necessary arrangements. They included a 10km exclusion zone, which took in 54 neighbouring farms and rural businesses, including the Wensleydale Creamery which had been the main buyer of the Lambert’s milk.

When the killing started Claire shut herself in the farmhouse, closed the windows and pulled down the blinds. The couple’s daughters Fiona, now 17, and 14-year-old Rachel were too young to understand quite why friends and neighbours kept bringing them presents. For Claire the girls were a distraction, but even the demands of two young children couldn’t block out what was happening outside.

“It was awful, just awful. I will always remember that it snowed just after the slaughter, but the ground was so scorched that it just melted away. For a while it felt like we couldn’t escape and that we were constantly living under the shadow of foot and mouth.”

William continued to get up at 6am - his body clock was permanently set to agricultural time - but with no cows to milk on those dark winter mornings he had an awful lot of time to think.

“It did give me a reality check,” he says now. “For 10 months we had a MAFF office on the farm and with no animals of my own to look after I decided to help with the clean up. I helped with the slaughtering, I did whatever needed to be done. What else could I do? But during those months I came to a decision. I knew that when it was all over, I didn’t want to go back to how it had been. I wanted to have more time for the family, more time for me.”

It was during the crisis that William first took to mining, exploring the old lead workings of the Dales. It’s been a hobby ever since and whatever else is happening in his life, Thursday evenings are generally spent underground.

“Honestly, it’s fascinating, there are some places we go that probably only a handful of people have seen in the last couple of hundred years,” he says. “And wherever we are we always make sure there’s enough time for a couple of drinks in the pub afterwards.”

Over the course of 2001, more than 2,000 animals were diagnosed with foot and mouth, almost four million animals were killed in an attempt to stem the spread and the disease cost the farming industry between £800m and £2.4bn. By the time the UK was declared foot and mouth free in January 2002, the Countryside Agency estimated foot and mouth had cost tourism was up to £3bn.

Some of the guest houses, hotels, pubs and cafes which had been doing just fine before the crisis never reopened - 10 months of little or no income had just been too much to bear. There were changes too at Raygill House Farm. While the Lamberts did receive compensation, it wasn’t enough to replace all the stock they had lost and the couple had to make some tough decisions.

“There was a limited pot of money, so we decided that we would concentrate solely on the dairy herd,” says William. “The farm had always had sheep, but what could we do?”

Taking care of his new herd of cows meant William still worked long hours, but he kept good on his promise to pursue outside interests. In 2004 he was approached by an old friend Tony Routh who was looking for help to save an old saw mill just a few miles down the road. “I remember going to collect wooden fencing posts from Gayle Mill as a kid, but things changed and set ups like that became redundant,” says William. “The owners were offered quite a lot of money by a developer who wanted to turn it into flats, but he said no. He thought there must be a way of preserving it and thank God he did.”

The mill was featured in the BBC’s Restoration programme and while it came fourth in the public vote, the publicity was enough to secure Heritage Lottery Funding. Today it’s part working mill/part visitor attraction and it has become something of a second home for the Lamberts. Claire was recently appointed manager and William pops in most days to do a bit of woodworking.

“I wouldn’t have time a few years ago, but in 2012 we sold the dairy herd. The price we were getting for the milk just wasn’t worth it. You get to the end of the year, you look at the figures and think, ‘Really, were all those hours just for this?’ Now we rent out our land and our barns to other farmers. I look after the animals as if they were my own, but there’s no stress.”

Claire says she has seen a definite change in her husband, but the couple have always been philosophical about farming life. “William’s father always said as long as the problems you face are outside the front door then you’ll be ok,” she says. “He was right. Even when we were dealing with foot and mouth we always had each other.”

Tomorrow: We catch up with Sally Slater who hit the headlines in 2000 when she was struck down by a mystery virus and her parents launched a national appeal to save her life.

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