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Last Updated: Friday, 20 February, 2004, 11:01 GMT
Foot-and-mouth: Mayhem remembered
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

Highland cow and Keep Out sign   PA
No through way: Farming came to a virtual halt
A date seared into the memory of every British farmer is 20 February 2001, the day that the country's worst epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease broke out.

The outbreak saw the slaughter of about six million animals, cost an estimated 8bn and turned lives upside-down.

Even now, many farmers say, the risk of something similar happening remains too high, and emergency plans are wanting.

For some the stress of that year proved too much, and they abandoned farming; others lead radically different lives.

The Cumbrian village of Kirkoswald is home to Les Armstrong and his brother Brian, who until the outbreak ran the family farm together.

Left to rot

That year they lost all their animals - 500 cattle and 1,300 sheep in total. All were bought by the Ministry of Agriculture (now the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) at the market price, and promptly slaughtered.

It was a wretched time, with the stinking bodies of culled animals lying abandoned for up to 10 days before they were buried or burnt by the government teams. Only the arrival of the Army saved the situation.

Dead sheep awaiting disposal   AP
Dead loss: Culled sheep
"Things were tough before the outbreak," said Les. "We were making a living, but not making enough to reinvest.

"We were working bloody long hours for poor returns, and we were fed up. But beyond any doubt, foot-and-mouth was the worst time I've ever known.

"And it's been even worse since then, because we've had to rebuild a business we'd developed over 40 years."

Despite that, the idea of leaving farming did not occur to him - because he and his son just wanted to get the farm going again.

"It hasn't been easy," he said. "The epidemic left a lot of trauma, a lot of tensions in farming. But now we're in a better position.

"We used to be a mixed farm, but now we just have dairy cows. We're more focused: we get up in the morning with only the herd to look after, instead of running from one job to another as we used to.

"I'm apprehensive about the reforms of the common agricultural policy. But I've no regrets about staying in farming."

Worse and worse

Brian, four years Les's junior at 54, has not abandoned farming, keeping a flock of 350 ewes. But now he spends three days a week or more away from the farm, earning his living in different ways.

"Because of mad cow disease and everything else that had happened, I felt total disbelief when foot-and-mouth arrived," he told BBC News Online.

Dead cows lying in field   PA
Slaughtered animals waited days for disposal
"The morning it was discovered on the farm I just thought: 'What else?' Our worst fears were coming true.

"I had a back problem, and the specialist advised me to leave farming. He helped to make up my mind.

"I used to be totally immersed in it, but now I have a completely different outlook.

"I'd thought I'd go on farming till I was 65 or 70, like our dad. I pinch myself to make sure I really am doing this.

"Family farms have always been the mainstay of this part of England. We're going to lose them, and that hurts me.

"The epidemic forced young people to get other jobs for a bit. They found they could get a proper wage, they liked it, and they're not coming back.

"Once the cord is cut, it'll take a long time to restore it. And it will change the shape of rural England."

Foot-and-mouth risk 'still there'
18 Feb 04  |  Science/Nature
Lawyers damn FMD handling
27 Aug 03  |  Wales


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