Page last updated at 07:25 GMT, Monday, 23 February 2009

Life after foot-and-mouth disease

By Tanya Gupta
BBC News, Surrey

The carcass of a cow culled during the foot-and-mouth outbreak in Surrey
Animals were killed on farms in Surrey and taken to an incineration plant

For livestock farmer John Emerson, the first visible sign of a foot-and-mouth outbreak in Surrey was a helicopter over his land, as the media took to the skies.

The night before, he had taken a phone call alerting him to infected animals on a neighbouring farm, half a mile away.

And on the morning of Saturday 4 August 2007, as the helicopter circled, his gates were locked, no-entry signs were displayed, and disinfected matting was laid down across the driveway, in a bid to protect his 362-strong herd.

By the Monday Mr Emerson had already heard the meat, worth 9,000, in his cold room at Hunts Hill Farm, Normandy, would be condemned. And then the NFU called him to a meeting in Reigate.

Mr Emerson said he arrived to find a car park full of police motorcycles and police range rovers, and corridors jammed with people.

Animals killed

"Hilary Benn and Gordon Brown were there in person," he said.

"Gordon Brown had his speech. A particular phrase stayed in my memory - that it all had to be 'contained, eradicated and destroyed'."

"I realised I was in the firing line," he said. "Emotions were very, very high."

Sign on the gate of a public footpath near a Surrey farm hit by foot-and-mou
Farm gates and footpaths were sealed off to control the virus

Defra vets had visited the farm every day since the alert was raised, but on the Wednesday the vets carried out a closer inspection.

"They were checking each foot individually," he said.

"The vet said 'we have to make a phone call'. Then he said 'you'd better sit down - we are going to cull your animals'."

"We were devastated," said Mr Emerson. "I knew it was coming, but to actually have it was shattering."

Teams in blue overalls worked through the night, killing the animals on the farm and loading their carcasses onto lorries, for transport to an incineration plant in Frome, Somerset.

But some of those cows had names.

"They would come to you when you would call them. They would come over to you," Mr Emerson said. "The eldest one - Aggie - we'd had her about 11 years."

On the Thursday, an investigation concluded that a vehicle had passed the foot-and-mouth virus between his farm and a neighbouring farm - the two businesses had used the same person to cure their bacon.

A day later, the Emersons heard their animals had not been infected at all.

'Silent and eerie'

"We were numb with shock," Mr Emerson said.

"The whole week was like a daze. We didn't know what day it was or what time of day. Everything was in limbo. We couldn't get out. People brought us bread. The road was blocked."

That weekend, he said they woke to find a silent and "eerie" farm. The vets had left and the animals had gone, and it was "totally deserted".

The couple had to decide whether to rebuild their business, which took 14 years to develop. At one stage, they considered giving up, and had the farm valued.

But they had been receiving "incredible" letters and supportive phone calls from customers and friends - including farmers who had experienced foot-and-mouth in 2001 - and they carried on.

They rebuilt their farm by selling produce bought from farming friends, seeking out old-fashioned breeds to restock their herd, and starting to produce veal.

John Emerson
John Emerson lost his herd but decided to rebuild his farm and carry on

And, looking back, Mr Emerson sees himself as lucky.

If his animals had been infected, the farm would have been closed for a year and "we would not be here at all," he said.

"Financially, we're back to where we were," he said. "We lost our animals very early on. It gave us time."

After the outbreak, two investigations concluded the most likely sources of the virus were two laboratories at Pirbright.

These were the Institute for Animal Health, a publicly-funded research organisation, and Merial Animal Health Limited, a privately-run vaccine company.

Both denied any failure in duty of care, and the government denied any negligence.

Mr Emerson received compensation for his herd, and the costs of the condemned cold room meat were settled.

And he was one of 14 farmers who went on to fight an NFU-funded legal battle claiming loss of profit against the government and the two labs.

The case is being heard on Monday in the High Court.

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