Devastation in the wake of foot and mouth:
Farmers count epidemic's cost as last 'infected status' areas are downgraded

December 1, 2001 The Guardian (London) by Angelique Chrisafis
"Come along ladies," said the farmer Steve Dunning, squeezing a row of pink, warty udders.

Mr Dunning's 700kg Friesian-Holstein dairy cows are known as the "mooing miracles" of Tebay, south Cumbria. They are one of the last preserves of live animals in the county's empty landscape.

Yesterday south Cumbria woke up free of the foot and mouth "infected" tag. There are now no more foot and mouth infected areas in England, only a selection of "high risk" counties. After nine months of a disease that has led to the destruction of 5.7m animals at a cost of pounds 2.7bn, the government would like to suggest the nightmare is nearly over.

But the stinking manure piled in heaps all over Mr Dunning's farm, as he is prohibited from spreading it, is a metaphor the whole community likes to use for their collective situation: "We are still in the shit."

Mr Dunning is an example of a section of financially crippled farmers: those who survived the foot and mouth outbreak, with animals alive.

His success at keeping the disease off his farm means that he saved the government around pounds 1m. But he has received no financial support for any measures he has taken. He has not sold a cow since February last year, and has lost almost all his income from livestock, while paying an extra pounds 1,100 a month to feed cattle inside.

While farms that went down with the disease got paid by Defra at a rate of pounds 15 an hour to clean up their farms, Mr Dunning has lost pounds 20,000 paying his own workers to help inspect animals during at least 42 Defra vet visits.

At one stage Mr Dunning worked for Defra himself, guiding vets to hefted sheep on the fells. The department promised to at least pay him expenses. The money never arrived. "I'm sick of asking for it," he said.

Mr Dunning has 380 cattle, including dairy cows, 600 breeding sheep and 800 lambs that would have been long-sold. Instead the sheep have been stranded in fields with no grass or crops because he has been restricted from moving them 10 yards across a road. He has to buyfood for them. The sheep can now be moved, but they have contracted foot rot from the mud in the fields. and will not fatten.

"I do feel a bit pissed off at the way I've been treated," said Mr Dunning, spraying down the milking tubes. His only income has been milk cheques, but the price of milk is set to fall in the new year. Lambs, when sales restart, will fetch pounds 18 each when they once sold for pounds 45. Farmers complain that when they go into supermarkets they see the meat priced at pounds 10 a kilo.

There are reputed to be 46 "foot and mouth millionaires", after farmers received pay-outs when their animals were culled. Many more dairy farmers - including Mr Dunning - could be millionaires on paper, but this is relative to the size of their businesses. Dairy farming is an expensive way to make money and farmers are finding themselves in debt through restocking.

"What has been termed compensation was actually the compulsory purchase of animals," said Brian Donald, a farmer in Lamonby whose entire infected stock was culled.

"Farmers are finding animals that they were paid pounds 10 to cull at the beginning of the outbreak are now worth pounds 20, and they cannot afford to fully restock.

"It has been more stressful getting 90 cows back on the farm than it was at the time of shooting my cows during the outbreak. We will not be back to normal for two years."

At 5am yesterday, lights flickered in living rooms as insomniac farmers watched cartoons. Nine months since their farms were taken out, they get up at 4am out of habit, but they have nothing to do. Some have sold out. The rest are likely to have no income until next year. One farmer has gone on a lecture tour of Australia with Brigadier Alex Birtwistle, the head of the army's operation in Cumbria. Another said he was surviving only because he was taking his mobile disco around the Christmas parties.

GPs have noted a rise in depression. A young farmhand said: "I get by because of my love of pub darts. If I didn't play twice a week to take my mind off it, I don't know what I'd do. Other young farm workers are in a hell of a way." He was surprised there had not been more suicides.

Some farmers in the north fells have been asked why they have not diversified into tourism. But the bed and breakfasts in their area have already closed down.

The Cumbria Crisis Alliance of rural tourism businesses said most were still 30% down with low bookings for Christmas. Some guesthouse owners are still said to be unable to afford to keep lights on in their houses.

The easing of foot and mouth restrictions in south Cumbria will itself leave thousands unemployed. Around 15,000 people are expected to be out of a job when the country gets "disease-free" status.

The night before restrictions were eased in south Cumbria, a cardboard sign saying "redundancy fund" went up outside the voluntary disinfectant point on the road to Kendal in Cumbria; at least 100 disinfectant-sprayers and their supervisors are now unemployed. Farmers had stopped off at the disinfectant points to donate chocolate bars for them to eat for the next few weeks.

Two climbing instructors who lost their jobs in February had moved 100 miles from home to live in a caravan parked in a muddy pub car park for the last four months while they worked as disinfectant sprayers.

"We've been working 12-hour shifts at pounds 7 an hour," one said. "Now we've got nothing. We've got to pack up and head back on the dole. Might get some work on the trains if we're lucky. It's a bastard."

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