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Looking back at the impact of the 2001 FMD outbreak

Experiences from 2001 should not be overlooked, and there are parallels to be drawn with the COVID-19 pandemic

It has been 20 years since an outbreak of foot and mouth disease (FMD) devastated the countryside. Week by week I assembled the experiences of farmers and veterinary surgeons as the disease and the impacts of the disease progressed. The disease was front page news with daily TV coverage and intense interrogation of farm and veterinary activities. The following extracts recall some of the frustration, anger, humour, dedication and relief noted at the time, without the benefit of hindsight. There are sound reasons why the experiences of 2001 should not be overlooked.

Extracts from 2001 accounts of the foot and mouth disease outbreak

As the number of slaughtered animals mounts, the number of individuals and families directly affected grows. For the majority, it is membership of an unwelcome club. For each person involved the recent past and the near future will be a pivotal point in their life. Children see the dead sheep, cattle and pigs. They also possibly witness the culling. They will remember, recall and possibly recount to their grandchildren. The look on the face of their father or mother when they take the call, when they realise that their farm is to be included on the list. Defining moments when the vet arrives. These are literally shocking times.

Hardened farmers are in a state of numbness and many have shed a tear, whether openly or privately. Two different local cases show some of the stresses. The first is a father, shivering for three days. He simply could not get warm. Two sons on the farm not so affected. They all helped with the slaughter and complimented the vets and slaughterers on their approach. The cows were injected and went to lie down in the cubicles, where they were shot. Welfare friendly for the cattle but the carcasses remained for a week and they were not easy to extricate from the housing for burning.

Secondly the spinster farming alone with what many would describe as an unprofitable unit. No money in it but a love for animals. She refused to allow her aged sucklers to go for slaughter when incineration of over 30-month-old cattle for BSE control came in. OK for meat pies but not as waste. Kept as pets you could say. Her beasts are now expected to be slaughtered as a close contact farm. Very difficult for her to grasp that there was nothing she could have done to prevent what is to occur. She dreads that day of death. She will be unlikely to be part of the livestock keeping community next year.

Rain has again been falling steadily all night. The lorry carrying the sheep has been loaded and the only person remaining in the early morning gloom was the vet sitting under the tailgate removing his waterproofs. No buildings were visible and the gateway was a quagmire of clay and mud. No bucket of hot water, soap and towel that was always available for James Herriot on the TV. Tucked under his sweater the vet was protecting 14 damp sheets of paper relating to the transfer of the pregnant ewes, out of the bog, on welfare grounds. This was one of the early licences and the administration had not been easy. All parties involved fumbling with uncertainties. The car phone brought news of another farm “going down”. The morning ahead was laced with expected contact from neighbouring clients. Does a river between the farms remove the likelihood of slaughter? The adjacent land has not carried stock. Can slaughter be avoided? “I don’t mind telling you,” said the vet, “this whole business is getting to the farmers and it’s getting to me too.”

When a farmer makes contact there is a natural desire to support a valued client. The FMD call from the farmer who is known to use at least three practices at a whim adds another dimension to the term natural selection. Why me? The lady with five goats is just as anxious as the large herd farmer. All lean towards their vet for knowledge and help. All utilise resources and all ask the vet to share their anguish.

Information about the crisis is gleaned by farmers from all sorts of sources. Local knowledge is more important than national statistics or political waffle. The appearance of a vet in coveralls and boots is enough to stop farmers’ wives driving in that direction. Keep yourself to yourself. Keep out is the order of the day. Children were kept home from school initially until it was realised that the outbreak wasn’t going to be all over in a couple of weeks. Socialising has stopped. Skittle leagues cancelled. The telephone is the social vehicle. Farmers’ wives have expressed gratitude for the letters from neighbours, friends and strangers who have seen that they are affected. Starkly the MAFF website announces: Home Farm (252 cattle, 108 sheep).

Some dairy farmers who rented out the land for winter sheep have lost their cows. A trader is revelling in the compensation and boasting down the pub. The disease expands and the culling boundaries are pushed forward. For 900 farmers the deed has been done and the buildings are empty. What happens now? Farmers are asking “What can we do now?”, “What can we grow, if anything?” If the land is to be ploughed and planted, time is important. Important practically, but even more important emotionally. Hitch up the tractor, turn up the radio, be busy. But at present the messages are unclear. If they plough land that has carried sheep will they risk burying the virus and keeping the disease? Questions, questions, questions.

There is one technical aspect that is mentioned time and time again and is believed by many farmers to be a contributing factor to the spread of this disease. Farms had FMD diagnosed. They, and contiguous farms, were culled out. Pyres were constructed and lit. Farms downwind of the pyres were engulfed in smoke and there are reports of the stock, and people, living and working in a stinking cloud. The downwind stock then developed FMD. Have pyres spread the disease?

One of the local stories concerns an MP whose office telephoned a farm because the animals had become infected and the stock slaughtered. The MP wanted to hear, first hand, how the farmer was coping. The farmer’s wife said she thought he better speak to her husband. “Oh is he there” says the caller, “I thought he would be milking the cows.” At one time such insensitivity and lack of awareness would make people angry. Now they just nod knowingly.

It has been possible to insure against foot and mouth disease. The insurance is not extensive but would provide living expenses until production starts again. However, what about contingent farms? For a farmer whose stock is not actually infected but has the slaughterers in, is he able to claim?

Some anxieties are worse in the thought than the deed. At morning milking the herdsman spotted one cow with an unusual foot lesion. The farmer was concerned and discussed his observations with his vet who reported their suspicions to the ministry. Further examination found that another cow was slobbering and on inspection of the mouth part of the tongue came away. The farmer knew what he had and he spent some time on the phone to his neighbours and then met two ministry men at the gate. Neither had ever experienced foot and mouth disease. “You will now,” said the farmer. One of the ministry men is an administrator who had never seen an animal slaughtered and he was dreading having to engage with his new hands-on role. Two days of experience later he said that the procedure was bearable and for the cattle “almost peaceful”, another veteran of the campaign.

Dangerous contacts, farmers consider, are often able to be identified by themselves and the farm is usually treated as though the disease had been present. Permission needed before leaving the farm and a record of people vis-iting. Full clean up and disinfection after slaughter and the farmer paid to assist. With contiguous cull the ground rules are less clear. It might be reasonable to assume that the farmers would welcome the purchase of their stock, a few weeks’ employment and a restful summer, but they hate it. They hate the whole idea of it. The contiguous cull may be essential in many circumstances but farmers have difficulty in understanding how prevention of the disease is served by animal removal distant from risk. The land is not the carrier of infection but ownership of the land, by a carrier owner, has become the indicator for culling.

Some farmers have volunteered that stock should be taken where dangerous contacts are obvious, even having to argue the case for slaughter. They would rather reduce the risk than feel responsible for the downfall of a neighbour. But now that five times as many farms are said to be slaughtered for being contiguous than for having FMD, the new contiguous cull disease has become a fearsome activity. The tale of the farm stock slaughtered because of a mistaken grid reference, 100 miles of error, has been told and retold through every rural telephone exchange. It is becoming difficult for farmers to keep in mind that the battle is against the virus and not the control agencies.

After five weeks of washing, dismantling and disinfecting, there is an estimated three weeks to go before the team of five plus the farmer complete the task. A local vet is the overseer and the team has worked hard and well. To come is an inspection, where it is believed that organic material will be looked for with a matchstick. The farmer asked the vet “what do I do if I find muck on the end of my matchstick?” “Set fire to it” was the curt reply from one of the members of the clean-up team.

Concluding remarks

Some nine years after the crisis, a leading cattle vet was presented with a copy of Silence at Ramscliffe, by the photographer who chronicled the arrival of the culling team to Ramscliffe Farm and the events of the day. The vet accepted the book graciously and laid it on a table with his hand firmly placed on top of it. He thanked the author but observed that the events were still too raw for him to yet be able to comfortably open the book. Twelve years after FMD, the photographs and text were appreciated but the remembrances generated still difficult.

There are parallels between FMD and COVID-19. In one the countryside was locked down and in the other the people are locked down. Both disease control activities have political direction and both have unintended consequences. It is said that the vets and farmers who experienced FMD are proving more resilient to the consequences of COVID-19 controls. If FMD breaks out again the mental stress on all involved will need to be a major consideration. In recent years there has been an increasing awareness of post-traumatic stress, not at the forefront of concerns in 2001. The human health consequences of FMD are still very real for many today.

Richard Gard


Following a 16-year apprenticeship with Beecham, Richard established a project management and development consultancy and writes regular contributions for the veterinary press.

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