Are we prepared for a new foot and mouth nightmare?

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Fiftten years on, the fear that foot and mouth disease could return is palpable.

In 2001 it ravaged the Cumbrian countryside for seven long months, and cost the county an estimated £230m – one third of the money garnered annually from tourism – as well as the loss of 7,000 of the 47,000 jobs in the tourism sector.

More than 1.3 million animals were destroyed in the county alone, with the Army even called in to help.

By the end of the outbreak a total of 893 county premises were infected and 3,500 farms lost all or some of their stock.

FMD will strike again, but there are also many more diseases worldwide that may impact in the future

In the county, 1.1 million sheep, 215,000 cattle, 45,000 pigs, and 1,500 other animals were killed.

The period was one of financial worry and emotional stress, with beloved flocks and herds slaughtered, and cash flows disrupted.

While the questions are still being asked if the government of the day handled the outbreak correctly and swiftly enough, the enduring image is of a countryside in crisis: billowing black smoke from pyres of burning animals and sickening sights of lorry-loads of slaughtered livestock being dumped in excavated pits.

Now a decade and a half on, the question uppermost in the minds of many who share these memories is “Could it happen again?”

Depressingly, most of the experts in Cumbria agree that it could.

 Adam Day

Adam Day

Adam Day is the new managing director of The Farmer Network organisation, set up in the aftermath of the 2001 outbreak.

As Mitchell’s livestock director, Adam saw the mass slaughter of animals first hand and witnessed the tears up close.

He says today farmers rarely talk about FMD 2001, but for those who visit affected farms the bitter memories live on.

“There are many farmers who seemingly cannot talk publicly about the horror of having all of their animals shot on farm, either in buildings or in fields,” Adam said.

“FMD will strike again, but there are also many more diseases worldwide that may impact in the future.

“It is in everyone’s interest for the industry to work together to ensure the highest standards of biosecurity, health status and traceability are in place, rather than draconian rules that ineffectively seek to reduce risk rather than tackle an outbreak head-on.”

While many of the county’s experts throw a question mark over whether the country would be able to deal with another similar outbreak, Adam is adamant in his belief that it would be stamped on quickly.

He says that the dreadful mistake that was made in 2001 was allowing live animals to be transported around the country for nine days after the disease was discovered near Hexham in February of that year.

“The rules that are now in place ensure that livestock movements are suspended on suspicion of FMD. But some other rules which were imposed such as the six-day rule are, for many farmers, too draconian and unnecessary.

“They continue to affect farm businesses and livestock markets detrimentally and are ineffective in several ways,” said Adam.

 David Black

David Black

Dalston-based vet David Black, whose Paragon Veterinary Practice saw 95 per cent of the animals it looked after wiped out in 2001, says many of his profession are very sure that it is not a matter of if, but of when, they see FMD again.

“We do not seem to have particularly tightened airport biosecurity or taken a strong stance on imports,” said David.

“The collective memory of FMD is fading now after 15 years. We have had 15 years’ worth of vets who saw it and worked with it retire, and 15 years’ worth of young vets who never saw it.

“At the moment, if there was to be another outbreak, there are enough of us around to make enough noise, and with a good understanding of the disease and our farming industry that the Government would be challenged quickly if action was not swift enough.

“But there may not be enough ‘foot soldiers’ depending on the strategy adopted,” he added.

“The apparent steady demise of the Veterinary Laboratory network and loss of experienced pathologists again means that relationships are weaker with private vet practice.

“But private vets would be needed to tackle a large outbreak and whether the vet profession would be in a position to really rise again to the size of the challenge we saw in 2001 may be questionable.

“Sometimes people ask me about foot and mouth and I still get choked up about the images I saw,” David recalled, “and there is a generation of farmers who use the outbreak as a timestamp. They’ll say things like, ‘I got my tractor after foot and mouth’.

“I feel foot and mouth could really sneak up on us, but it depends on where it hits. Livestock movement controls are better than they were in 2001.”

 Nick Utting

Nick Utting

Nick Utting, who was in the thick of the outbreak in his role as the former National Farmers Union group secretary based in Carlisle, echoed some of David’s concerns.

“When foot and mouth hit our county in February 2001 it was obvious that any pre-existing contingency plan had not been reviewed for many years.

“The Animal Health Department of MAFF was seriously ill-prepared, highlighted by the fact that procedures in place were totally inadequate to cope with the devastation unfolding before us,” said Nick.

“My question remains, despite subsequent assurances that future contingency plans would be updated and rehearsed regularly, are such departmental reviews being undertaken?

“Furthermore I fear that current biosecurity systems and controls on meat imports are such that a further outbreak of this terrible disease may strike once again when our guard is down.”

What was an area once associated with the deaths of thousands of animals is now helping to save the lives of many others.

From a burial ground of brown fields to Europe’s largest man-made nature reserve, Watchtree, on the former Great Orton airfield, is now home for endangered wildlife species, as well as the hugely-successful Watchtree Wheelers, a project providing a fleet of specialist bikes to those with physical needs.

It has seen an increasing amount of people using its beautiful site since it opened in 2009.

Every inch of the airfield that once hit the headlines has been dug up and recycled to turn into a trail for visitors navigating their way around reed beds and lakes.

Frank Mawbry was chair of the board of trustees at Watchtree for 10 years. He said the 10-year funding package to transport Watchtree for the community from Defra had come to an end.

“Unfortunately, the first thing you look at when funding stops is staffing,” said Mr Mawbry.

“Although we have lost one person, we still have our project manager, Ryan Dobson, who does a fantastic job with the Watchtree Wheelers. We still have seven of our original directors on the board, including myself, but we need someone to take over as chair. We need someone who has the right contacts on the outside.

“We still have our loyal volunteers who do an amazing job, but we are always looking for more. We also have a host of events planned for this year, including actors coming to do an outdoor theatre.”

In 2002, John Nattrass was busy tending a herd of dairy cows at Mawbray Hayrigg. But as farmers across the country struggled to get back on their feet after the foot and mouth crisis, and amid ever-falling milk prices, John and wife Val decided it was time to diversify to make ends meet.

It was from there that The Gincase was born, with the help of funding available at that time to farmers willing to branch out.

John said: “Val had always wanted to have a tearoom and my father had always said whatever the Government wants you have got to go with; if they’re wanting farmers to diversify you have to diversify.”

A gallery and craft barn were created, providing display space for local artists, and the farmhouse tearoom opened for business in July 2004, with a small area of farm animals and pets for visitors to enjoy.

Over the years the enterprise, which overtook traditional farming and became a full-time business, has grown into a popular visitor attraction.

From what started out as just a “few animals”, the farm park has developed into a thriving indoor and outdoor attraction with the chance for families to get up-close with a range of different creatures.

Taking time out from a busy school half-term, John said plans to open up a new cafe on its coastal site at Mawbray, near Silloth, to replace the existing catering facilities for the farm park, would come to fruition at Easter.

“We’ve never looked back,” he added. “It was the best thing we did.”

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cumbrian   , carlisle Monday, 22 February, 2016 at 6:59PM
Why bring back the awful memories of 2001 at the time when anyone involved cannot help but remember what they would prefer to be able to forget? Regarding the question " Are we ready for a future event"? probably not as personnel and facilities are always changing. It is to be hoped that swift action can be put in place without too many "committee meeings" causing a hindrance, and the correct level of authority is given to the right people from the outset.
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john   watson , new zealand Friday, 26 February, 2016 at 6:38AM
Left Cumberland in 2002 visited once since can only say how much diversified rural north Cumberland now is place.s like Val nutters or Orton grange Fm as will any government be ready is dispute able question is did they get the result they wanted . If nothing else the restocking brought in tb
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