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After the plague

February 20, 2002 The Scotsman  by Fordyce Maxwell
Trying to separate emotion, anecdote and rumour from fact about the foot-and -mouth epidemic of 2001 is a problem. It was from the beginning, with the first confirmed case in the UK for 34 years (a pig in an Essex slaughterhouse exactly one year ago today), is now, with the number of inquiries being held into double figures (although not one is a full official public inquiry), and probably ever will be for ever and ever, amen.

Everyone involved, from farmers to rural shop-owners, has a slightly different version of the horror. As do the vets, slaughtermen, hauliers, soldiers, pyre-builders, hole-diggers, politicians and even the maligned bureaucrats of what started out as the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maffia according to its critics) and is now the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

Everyone had a slightly different view of Britain's worst animal health disaster. The final toll of animal deaths, billions of pounds spent as well as human stress and anger will never be known. But what should not be underestimated is the resilience of farmers, farm staff and rural business people. After months of more bleeding-heart media coverage than might be expected from a war, one year and more than ten million slaughtered animals on from the infected pig at Cheale Meats, farming and the countryside are rebuilding and re-stocking. That did not seem possible last spring. In the early days, as it was realised with panic that the virus had been spread hundreds of miles to tens of thousands of animals from that Northumberland pig farm, there were apocalyptic fears that it would wipe out British livestock farming.

The fear grew as the Ministry of Agriculture handled the rising tide of infection badly. After 20 February it took three days to impose a standstill order on all livestock movement. Those were the days during which Britain's extensive network of sheep dealing, some of it illegal, much of it at speed down motorways, spread the virus rapidly from Longtown market in Cumbria to a dozen other counties.

On the same day that the ministry finally clamped down on all livestock movements, the state's chief vet, Jim Scudamore, took the unusual step of saying categorically that the business run by the Waugh brothers at Heddon-on -the-Wall, Northumberland, where pigs were fed on boiled swill, was the source.

A court case concerning the way pigs on that farm were fed and cared for continues. But many people, including the prolific writer Richard North and his alter-ego "Muckspreader" in Private Eye, believe that foot-and-mouth had been in the British sheep flock for months before it reached Bobby Waugh's pigs.

That conspiracy theory was popular. It had the Ministry of Agriculture organising supplies of sleepers to make pyres in the autumn of 2000 as it braced itself for the outbreak it knew was coming. The counter-argument must be that even the Ministry of Agriculture would not have handled the epidemic so badly, the first since the plague-on-the-Cheshire-plain epidemic of 1967/68 when more than 2,300 farms were affected and more than 430,000 animals slaughtered, particularly if it had known in advance.

Constant comparisons with the Cheshire epidemic were made. It seemed that no lessons had been learned from the post-Cheshire Northumberland Committee inquiry, with its recommendations for better control of imported meat - always the most likely source of the virus, especially from swill - or the need to control livestock movements and the possible use of vaccination.

In the meantime, the number of confirmed cases last year rose from 18 in the first full week to 63 in the second, 124 in the third, 190 in the fourth, 297 in the fifth and the peak of 298 in the sixth. The count passed the 1,000 mark early in week seven and finally reached 2,000 after six months, at the beginning of September.

As the animal death toll rose, the black smoke from funeral pyres seemed to hang everywhere, an image that went round the world and crippled the tourist trade. Americans, and possibly some others, believed that humans could catch foot-and-mouth disease. Tipping millions of dead animals into stinking pits rather than burning them did not help greatly in dispelling that impression.

The Ministry of Agriculture fast developed a reputation for ineptness and bungling as rotting carcasses piled. The demand for vaccination increased. It was too late for that. The disease had spread too far and too fast, but it did not stop a campaign starting that went on for months, led mainly by hobby farmers and landed gentry, while the ministry compounded its incompetent image by introducing contiguous slaughter.

Before 2001 all cloven-footed animals on a farm where foot-and-mouth was confirmed were slaughtered. But animals on neighbouring farms were not. Vets waited to see if the disease appeared. In 2001, in an effort to control the spreading virus, all farms round an infected farm had stock slaughtered.

It's small wonder that horror was the main sentiment, or that demand for vaccination was intense, or that Jim Walker, a hill-farmer in Dumfriesshire and president of NFU Scotland, was reviled for his uncompromising view that fast, effective and large-scale slaughter of sheep in the infected areas was the only way to prevent the disease spreading.

It is a fact that virtually every account of the epidemic so far - including Richard North, Private Eye and the Daily Telegraph which, apart from The Scotsman, provided the most consistent coverage of the epidemic from start to finish - has barely mentioned Scotland. That could be because the combination of NFU Scotland, the Scottish executive's rural development department led by Ross Finnie, and the Dumfries & Galloway and Borders councils got it right and controlled the epidemic by slaughter.

Dumfries & Galloway, ironically and sadly because of its experience in dealing with the human tragedy of the Lockerbie plane crash a dozen years before, had an emergency centre, which co-ordinated all services, ready to go. When Scotland's first case of foot-and-mouth for 40 years was confirmed on 1 March the Dumfries "bunker" went into action.

Slaughter and disposal was handled better than it ever was just over the Border in Cumbria. When the virus hit the eastern Borders the same lessons were applied. Foot-and-mouth was removed from Scotland more quickly and more efficiently than anywhere else in the UK. But the success of a slaughter policy does not fit the vaccination agenda most commentators advocated or the demand for a public inquiry, which is now being pursued in the High Court in London.

South of the Border bungling continued. Nick Brown, the then minister of agriculture, was sidelined by the Prime Minister deciding to take charge, visiting Cumbria and being shaken by what he saw and the reception he received from angry farmers.

But it was not until the army was brought in to Cumbria and Devon that the logistics of slaughtering animals and disposing of carcasses improved. The rest is more or less history - there were further summer scares in Scotland, but no confirmed cases, while the disease flared again to devastating effect in Yorkshire and Northumberland and wiping out large areas of Cumbria. DEFRA, now under an unwilling Margaret Beckett, was criticised and a public inquiry demanded. It is still being refused. Instead the government set up three inquiries, mainly in private. Councils such as Northumberland and Devon held their own. The Royal Society of Edinburgh is taking evidence.

What they will all do is confirm that the epidemic was ineptly handled. There will be heart-breaking personal stories of mistakes and animal welfare horror and financial ruin. They will also confirm that people under enormous stress sometimes don't know which way to turn or what to do. Legal action in a number of areas - false compensation claims, illegal movement of livestock, illegal slaughter by the ministry, tourism business demanding compensation along with farmers - could go on for years.

Most farmers I speak to, however, and most people in the countryside, prefer to look ahead. Few farmers have quit. They have either bought new animals or plan to do so as soon as they get the all clear. Cows are being milked again in Dumfries & Galloway, Cumbria and Devon, and beef cattle are back in the sheds and fields. On Grange Farm, near Castle Douglas, for example, where thousands of cattle and sheep were slaughtered last year, including the oldest pedigree herd of Galloway cattle in Britain, farmer Donald Biggar has re -stocked and is moving forward once more.

Around Langholm in the Borders, where 65 tenanted farms on Buccleuch Estate had their animals slaughtered and last summer there was the heart-rending sight of miles of green hill without a sheep in sight, all have re-stocked and re-started. The first lambs of this spring are now due. An octogenarian tenant has produced a ten-year plan for his farm.

In Scotland livestock markets have been open since last autumn, under steadily easing movement restrictions. Markets in England re-opened last week. This week, a sure sign of normality, that fixture in the farming calendar, Perth bull sales, is being held.

The worry is that as farmers get round auction rings again, re-stock with expensive new animals and put some of their GBP 165 million (in Scotland) compensation money into new machinery and land, not enough lessons have been learned, even if "bio-security" has been added to agriculture's vocabulary.

Farmers are refusing to quit. It's admirable in its way, but they are also refusing to co-operate, diversify or accept that their methods must change. Too many want to return to what they did before 20 February last year, unhindered by what they see as pettifogging rules on animal movement and welfare, or by public opinion. As lambs are born on the Langholm hills in a new spring, it is a tempting thought that there is no need for change. But there is.


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