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EDITIONS
Tuesday, 25 December, 2001, 11:36 GMT
Living through foot-and-mouth crisis
BBC NI's agriculture correspondent Martin Cassidy looks back on a year when Northern Ireland agriculture was rocked by the food-and-mouth crisis.

The farming year began with signs of the first green shoots of economic recovery.

After a five year slump, there were hopes that incomes would begin to recover.

February though brought chilling news when an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease was confirmed at a pig abattoir in Essex.

The farming industry in Northern Ireland held its breath as contact farms were checked.

It was not pigs but sheep that were found to have brought the virus to Northern Ireland and March began with the agriculture minister Brid Rodgers confirming a foot-and-mouth outbreak at Meigh in south Armagh.

Brid Rodgers: Confirmed outbreak in March
Brid Rodgers: Confirmed outbreak in March

What followed underlined the brutal reality of disease control measures and the economic consequences of the virus.

The cull of animals on farms around Meigh and the pyres of burning carcasses were to leave indelible images.

The Republic of Ireland moved immediately to seal the border while the European Commission imposed a ban on exports of meat and dairy products.

Containers carrying produce were returned unopened while shipments of dairy products were turned back on the high seas.

An industry which exports to survive was once again plunged into crisis and the crisis was about to deepen with an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease just across the border at Ravensdale in County Louth.

Subsidy payments

The decision was made for a mass cull of sheep in the Cooley peninsula and south Armagh but local opposition threatened the plan.

There were suspicions some flock owners might be stalling for time. The minister, Brid Rodgers, said there would be no amnesty for sheep subsidy fraudsters.

In the event, the foot-and-mouth cull in south Armagh in March uncovered significant levels of fraud.

Of the 93 farmers who claimed subsidy payments, 58 had fewer animals than they had been receiving money for while 16 had no sheep at all.

In other words they were claiming subsidies on flocks that did not exist.

Virus was found in sheep
Virus was found in sheep

Twelve cases were referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions but an apparent loophole in the law meant the cases were dropped.

April brought new hope and an easing of export restrictions in all but the Newry and Mourne area, but the virus had not yet finished with the local farming community.

Easter beckoned with the promise that a suspected case at Ardboe in County Tyrone had tested clear of the virus but the following day, Good Friday, brought another set of test results on Paddy Donnelly's herd.

It was positive and confirmation of the Ardboe case was quickly followed by another outbreak near Cushendall in the glens of Antrim.

More than 50,000 animals would perish in the cull that followed.

Cancellation

Tourism as well as farming was blighted with the cancellation of many events including the North West 200 motor-cycle races.

The fourth and what proved to be the final case, was confirmed at Ardboe later in April but the rural community would remain in the grip of the virus for many months to come.

Culls took place to fight outbreak of virus
Culls took place to fight outbreak of virus

So-called "fortress farming" meant minimising contact with neighbours while specially constructed disinfection machines at ports were a reminder to the travelling public of a continuing epidemic in Britain where the number of cases was to top 2,000.

The Balmoral show too fell victim to foot-and-mouth restrictions in May while a sense of normality began to return in June with the lifting of export restrictions on milk and meat products.

Then, as the summer wore on, sales of livestock finally replaced the video auctions which had been held to minimise the disease risk.

Finally, in the autumn, regular sheep sales got under way as blood testing of flocks gave a growing sense of confidence that the virus had been defeated.

The year ended with further signs of economic recovery getting under way and a 15% increase in farm incomes.

See also:

07 Sep 01 | N Ireland
10 May 01 | N Ireland
19 Apr 01 | N Ireland
19 Apr 01 | N Ireland
01 Jun 01 | N Ireland
30 Mar 01 | N Ireland
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