Page last updated at 19:07 GMT, Tuesday, 21 February 2006

Farmers wary of virus' return

By Sarah Mukherjee
BBC News environment correspondent

A cow is lowered on to a pyre during the foot-and-mouth epidemic
Images of burning cattle were etched on many people's memories

Five years after the foot-and-mouth crisis farmers worry it could happen again.

Five years ago this week, the phone rang. It was the news desk - the first case of foot-and-mouth for decades had been discovered in pigs during a routine inspection at an abattoir in Essex.

Could I do some live spots for local radio stations in the morning?

It seems amazing now, but at that time, the first job was to find out exactly what foot-and-mouth was - and it wasn't just the journalists who were in the dark.

I remember having a three-way conversation with a senior vet - him, me and a textbook - trying to find out what the symptoms were.

The last outbreak in Britain had been in the late 1960s, and that was centred on Shropshire.

It soon became apparent that the motor of the rural economy was tourism, not agriculture

But I remember being told by one farmer at the time of the 2001 outbreak: "If this spreads, you cannot underestimate the damage this will do to the British farming industry."

Unfortunately, how right he was proved.

One of the senior vets involved at the time told me afterwards: "The problem was, we thought we were dealing with a disease in pigs in the South East, when in fact we were dealing with a disease in sheep and cows in the North East."

The sheep were from a farm in Northumberland, and from there the disease had spread through animal movements, gouging a path through some of the country's prime farming land.

Movement ban

It reached Cumbria, the county most devastated by the disease, the Midlands, and the South West.

Instead of putting an immediate ban on animal movements, the government allowed them to continue for a few days - which in turn allowed farmers to move animals across the country, spreading the disease.

The crisis dominated the headlines for months with images of burning pyres of animals often on our television screens.

The government was accused of "closing down the countryside", and it soon became apparent that the motor of the rural economy was tourism, not agriculture.

Some experts say illegal meat imports could easily bring in another outbreak

Five years on, and in Cumbria, the feeling is that the community has moved on.

Cumbrian farmers are certainly used to hardship - inhospitable weather and poor soil make it one of the toughest parts of the country to make a living from - but even now, their eyes fill with tears as they remember the days when their animals were shot.

For many beef farmers, these were herds that had been bred to match the land and weather conditions, often over generations.

One told me he was still "fighting the grief". But he is now part of a farmers' meat processing co-op, named Junction 38 after the nearby exit of the M6.

The 50 farmers involved raise the livestock, process it at Junction 38 and them sell it on to the restaurant trade - becoming their own middle-men, in effect, and hopefully keeping more of the profit.

They realise, however, that if it fails, it could be the end of farming for many of them.

Bovine TB

Some farmers saw it as a wake-up call for an industry that was rapidly heading for the buffers.

But for others, little has changed. In the South West, bovine TB has continued to damage what was left of the industry after foot-and-mouth.

There remains the possibility of the disease returning.

Some experts say illegal meat imports could easily bring in another outbreak.

The government has signalled that vaccination - which last time many farmers did not want because it would have affected exports - would be considered as a method of fighting the disease.

There are probably few farmers who would not agree to vaccination should an outbreak happen again.

Some say that an outbreak of the severity of 2001 could deal many sectors of the industry a blow from which they would never recover.

video and audio news
See the affect of the outbreak on farming practices

The battle to recover
19 Feb 06 |  UK
'Human tragedy' of foot-and-mouth
07 Oct 05 |  Lancashire
New foot-and-mouth action urged
02 Feb 05 |  UK Politics


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