The Health and Social Consequences of the 2001 Foot and Mouth Epidemic in North Cumbria
 
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From 'Tell your story'

.In February 2001 I lived on a 12-acre smallholding in SW Shropshire. Our patch was an island in a sea of our nearest neighbours’ fields where sheep and cattle grazed. We had sheep too, a small flock of 27. Everyone was in the middle of lambing.

When the news of FMD broke, fear entered our valley. Farmers stopped leaning on gates to chat with their neighbours or calling by for a mug of tea and a grumble about market prices. By March we had all withdrawn behind our barricades of disinfectant-soaked straw to watch televised pictures from Cumbria in horror and disbelief.

It felt like a state of siege. Rumours multiplied like the virus itself and friendliness turned into suspicion, fear to paranoia. We practised the most stringent biosecurity and turned the postman into a stranger by making him leave the post at the bottom of the lane. I even hesitated before calling the local vet out to help one of our ewes because he’d been on every farm for thirty miles and I didn’t want the disease rolling over the cattle grid with him.

When the disease raced through Powys to the end of our valley, our fear turned to horror. From evil black beginnings, the smoke from pyres rose in towering columns that filled the air, blocked the sun and polluted the rain. Each fire burned for days and every evening there were more. We stayed indoors as much as possible, especially when the wind changed and brought the smell of death, and I tried to squash the feeling that I was forsaking other farmers in their very hour of need.

Then our nearest neighbour found foot and mouth in a few sheep he grazed on rented pasture four miles away. Because he had visited them every day, he was branded a Dangerous Contact; his home farm herd of cattle and hundreds of ewes and their new lambs grazing fields below our holding, was immediately condemned. Though MAFF decreed instant action, nothing happened. For thirteen days I watched him turn up at first light to feed his flock their last meal. Every day he walked through his sheep and lambs giving the same attention he had always given and I wondered at his fortitude.

But we avoided each other. If I was using our shared lane, he went round the long way. If he’d driven over the lane before I passed, I tried not to walk on his ATV tracks for fear of taking the virus home. And I hated myself for treating him like a leper. In a community where good neighbourliness is an unwritten commandment, this man had willingly turned out at three am to help in our first fumbling attempts at keeping sheep. His table had groaned for us, he and his wife included us in family celebrations, and his skills and equipment had been on tap for nine years.

In guilt, and in concern for them in their enforced quarantine on the farm, I phoned him instead and discovered they were finding it hard to keep warm. I knew what he meant; dread sits like ice in the stomach. Later, I heaved 25-kilo bags of coal over his locked gate and teased him about strapping young men allowing middle-aged women to do all the heavy work. When he laughed, the barrier between us dissolved. We were neighbours again.

The heavy plant arrived eventually and our neighbour phoned us to warn us to stay indoors the next day, thinking of us at the moment his living was about to be wiped out.

We didn’t stay indoors. In warm sunshine and frozen silence, we watched him walk through his flock the next morning with three men in white suits, saw the sheep trot towards him to see if he had food then turn away at the sight of strangers. Sheep are not stupid. A large flock of sheep make a deafening roar with ewes repeatedly calling their lambs, but the pall of silence after they disappeared from sight smothered the valley, until we heard his cattle bellowing, and then the shots. Each dull thud reverberated through the ground and our dogs were frightened and our geese started running.

They lit the pyre just after dusk, after our neighbour had phoned to say his home farm flock had been diagnosed disease-free. He said he felt relieved after thirteen days of fear that they were infecting the valley, but I watched their stock burn and could think of nothing but infernal carnage.

Three weeks later, when contiguous culling began, another farmer a mile across the valley found foot and mouth in one heifer. Within hours, all his sheep and cattle had been slaughtered, disinfected, piled up in a small mountain and cling-wrapped in acres of black plastic to keep them from public view. At the end of three days, eight of his neighbours had lost their stock in a contiguous cull of thousands of animals.

The valley had buzzed with activity. Army Land Rovers whined along the road and squaddies bought cigarettes in the village shop. So did the slaughtermen who arrived in a fleet of white vans; I heard them laughing but I couldn’t see any funny side to life. I witnessed the awful mechanics of death – the rounding up, the mounting piles of sheep, loader buckets scooping them up like so much rubbish and dumping them in trucks to be taken away to an anonymous tip in someone else’s countryside.

And still it wasn’t over. During April and May, my horror at the mass slaughter turned to anger as I witnessed the declining welfare of sheep still grazing on a winter let above our patch. They should have returned to their home farm at the end of February but were marooned by animal movement restrictions. After eating every blade of grass down to the mud, they lambed in dire conditions through April. In May, just when the grass had leapt into new growth and lambs had survived a shaky start, the Army and the slaughtermen came back for them.

We didn’t lose our animals. We fought to keep them protected from disease by rigorous biosecurity as well as isolation from boundaries but, in July, we endured a forced entry from MAFF officials and the police. We peaceably resisted the entry but an arrest was made which allowed them access. After the shock of this invasion of our home and quiet living came fury. Though brought up to be a sensible and law-abiding citizen, my trust and respect for authority was destroyed that day.

There were no more outbreaks in our valley but the fields for miles around us were dead. Machines grazed them through the summer to keep them in good heart but the valley was a green desert. There was an eerie silence that reached as far as town where the livestock market stood disinfected and empty. Farmers with stock despaired over lack of trade and income, and some farmers who lost their animals started to work for other people, if they managed to find a job with so many rural industries on the casualty list.

I will never forget what happened that year. Nor will I forgive the shameful and insensitive treatment so many endured.

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