Anniversary brings back memories of dark days

Ten years ago this month a disease was spotted that would deliver a terrible shock to British farmers. Chris Berry returns to the first in Yorkshire to discover foot and mouth.

This is how William Lambert recalls the black day when he suspected his farm had become the first in Yorkshire to be officially recorded as a victim of foot and mouth disease. The memory of that still haunts William, of Raygill Farm, near Hawes and it comes to the forefront of his mind as he discusses next week’s tenth anniversary of the first case being spotted.

“It’s almost like it was yesterday. My local vet, David Metcalfe of Bainbridge Vets, came over and his reaction was shock. He’d been through the 1967 outbreak and knew without a question of doubt that we had it.”

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By the time FMD had been eradicated in September 2001 more than six million animals had been slaughtered, many of them killed not because they had the disease but for fear of being infected, what we all came to know as a “contiguous cull”.

The Yorkshire Dales and latterly the North York Moors were grievously affected and the scars remain. William recalls, “Around 95 per cent of livestock in Wensleydale, this side of Leyburn, was taken out. It was a nasty, barren scrubland mess and a horrible time. We had a policeman put on our gate within hours of receiving the confirmation that we had it.

“For two weeks we weren’t allowed to go off the farm and nobody was allowed on. Wensleydale and Hawes is a honey-pot for tourists. The livestock market couldn’t run, tearooms were closed, everything was knocked on the head. Most farmers tried something different after foot and mouth in 2001. We used to have sheep and dairy cattle – now we’re just dairy. The little village of Burtersett near here had six farms, all with a few cows and a flock of sheep. Now there isn’t a beast in the village.”

At the time I was editor of the Farming in Yorkshire magazine and a telephone call I received brought home to me in a dramatic manner how hard this disease was hitting the hearts and minds of the farming community. It was from a lady in the Dales near Settle. She rang in an emotional state to say her husband had “wandered off”. She obviously feared for his life. She explained the disease had just been confirmed a short distance from their farm. Fortunately I was in touch with experts who later told me the call was one of the most significant they received during that time. No-one lost their life that day, although animals were now being slaughtered at the rate of 100,000 a day.

It eventually turned out that the disease had been carried through Yorkshire at the very start. Suspicion was first reported by an official veterinary surgeon during a routine check on pigs awaiting slaughter at the Cheale Meats abattoir in Essex. Confirmation came the following day. Within three days of the first alert, the likely source of the infected pigs was identified. It was a farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall in Northumberland which had sent 35 sows to the abattoir on February 15.

The lorry carrying the pigs would have travelled through Yorkshire en-route from the North. There is no record of a stop-over at a livestock market such as Selby (which does a healthy trade in pigs) on the journey south nor a record of a driver having to stop. It was the movement of livestock around the country which was a major contributory factor to the spread of foot and mouth. It’s a highly infectious viral disease affecting cattle, sheep, pigs, goats and other ruminants. Fever is followed by blisters mainly in the mouth or on the feet and affected animals lose condition quickly.

The most serious effects are seen in dairy cattle, which is why William Lambert was able to spot it so quickly. Although previously healthy animals may recover, they can be left with chronic infections, lameness, reproductive disorders and loss of milk yield. In other words it is a living disaster. It’s usually most prevalent in sheep and although the first strains were recorded in pigs, the farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall that was the source of the outbreak also had a flock of sheep.

Sheep are traded throughout the UK every day and animal transportation was the major headache in eradicating the disease. By the time officials had located what they considered to be the source of foot and mouth on February 23, 2001 the virus was up and running. Stock had already been infected on neighbouring farms in Northumberland and before anyone noticed, 16 sheep from one of these farms had been sent to Hexham Market, then on to Longtown Market in Cumbria and from there to Welshpool.

That doesn’t mean they were necessarily sold again at each point, just that they could have been on a wagon destined that picked up more sheep on its way to its final destination. The disease spread to Devon, Dumfries and Galloway and Cheshire through such livestock dealer trading.

It’s now known that at least 48 premises in 15 counties had already been “seeded” with foot and mouth before the first suspected case was identified on February 19. By then everyone was desperately playing catch-up.

William of course had been closely following the story and had taken precautions on his farm. There’s a wheel wash on his farm-track which remains fully topped-up to this day.

“We had straw mats up at home and we had tried everything to stop it from getting to us. But no matter how hard we tried it seems it was fated to come.”

He loves his cows, knows them all by name – he has 85 milkers – and he has been milking them since he was 10 years old.

So if it came again and he had to go through losing them once again what would he do this time?

“I do love them but it’s difficult. Financially there is no way in the world that I would start again. Ten years later things haven’t got any easier. We haven’t had a good year in any of the past ten. We’ve got by and that’s all you can say.

“The present impact that supermarket power is having over price structure for milk is actually having a bigger impact on farmers and families than foot and mouth ever did. There are a lot of farmers who restarted after foot and mouth, but if it happened again there is now no way in the world that they would restart once more.

“I enjoy everything about farming and it would be hard to find another job that covers all the bases. But at the end of the day I’ve got to live and feed the family. Sadly at the moment we’re probably going to make a big loss this year.”

steep price paid by farmers and the country for disease epidemic

The 2001 outbreak became the world’s largest foot and mouth epidemic. The cost to the UK was estimated to be in excess of £8bn. The scale was far greater than the previous outbreak in 1967 which largely centred on the western counties of the UK.

In Cumbria, where the Army was eventually called in to sort things out, an immense burying ground was created.

At Great Orton Airfield, large rectangular pits were dug to accommodate the prodigious number of culled animals.

All told, 466,312 carcasses made up of 448,508 sheep, 12,085 cattle and 5,719 pigs were buried here between late March and May 7 2001 in 26 trenches. The site was chosen because it close to large areas of infected farms and the contiguous cull but also because the bedrock geology consists of relatively stable clays. It was considered a suitable location by the Environment Agency but much of it had to be completely engineered to cater for such a large volume of dead animals.

The most notable feature was a 12 metre deep bentonite and clay wall, constructed to contain deep ground water before being cleaned and released into nearby watercourses. These fluids still have to be monitored 10 years on.