Two decades ago Cumbria experienced the horrific foot and mouth outbreak, but the disaster has left a positive legacy....WORDS SUZANNE ELSWORTH

It feels strange to be writing this in the time of a global pandemic – when communities are locked down, families isolated, and hygiene and handwashing at the forefront of everyone’s minds. For seven months in 2001, that’s what happened in Cumbria – albeit on a different scale and in different circumstances.

At Watchtree Nature Reserve near Great Orton, a former airbase near Carlisle, there is a special stone. It’s inscribed as a memorial to the 448,508 sheep, 12,085 cattle and 5,719 pigs which were taken there in the biggest mass burial of the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001.

Twenty years ago, Cumbria found itself at the epicentre of this horrific epidemic which, official reports said afterwards, ‘was unique in the scale and duration’. That same report spells out the unimaginable scale of the death toll – more than a million sheep, over 200,000 cattle, nearly 40,000 pigs and in excess of a thousand goats and deer.

And that was just in Cumbria. UK-wide figures show more than six and a half million animals died or were culled – with some reports that the numbers could have been as high as ten million.

The images from those terrible months were shown around the world, and they are etched in the minds of every farmer, whether they lost their livestock or not.

According to the official foot and mouth outbreak public inquiry report: “The first indication of FMD in the UK was gained through the alertness of a Meat Health Service Officer who detected signs in a pig at an abattoir in Essex on 19 February. Disease was confirmed on 20 February, and this led to a search for the ‘index case’ involving some 600 livestock tracings.

“By 23 February FMD had been confirmed at a pig-finishing unit at Burnside Farm, Heddon-on-the-Wall in Northumberland, which was licensed to feed processed waste food under the Animal Byproducts Order 1999.”

The disease is thought to have spread by two routes – one via the transfer of pigs to slaughter and the second through airborne transmission of the virus to sheep on a nearby farm.

The report adds: “The sheep entered the market chain and went via Hexham Market, Longtown Market and through dealers, contaminating other sheep, people and vehicles so that the FMD virus became distributed widely through England, Wales and parts of Scotland.”

It goes on to say: “The sheep predicated to have brought the virus from Hexham are reported to have passed through the Longtown Market on 15 February but there was also a sale on 22 February that could have further contributed to disease spread.”

Moira Fisher and her husband Robin had the first confirmed case of foot and mouth in the county at their Smalmstown Farm, in Longtown, near Carlisle. Moira says: “We didn’t realise the magnitude of what were about to go through.

“I recall Robin coming back in to the house and he had spotted the first symptoms in our dairy herd, they had blisters on their udders. That wasn’t what you heard about in the media so it was really odd. The vet couldn’t come, he said he was sending the Ministry, then told us to block our road end and that nobody could come to the farm.

“What followed was the most horrendous two weeks of our lives. Initially, the Ministry vet took samples, they were picked up at the road and sent to Pirbright for testing. Then all hell broke out.”

All the Fisher’s livestock had to be culled, from the sheep they were fattening and finishing, to their herd of cattle, and their new lambs. The family had to bring their animals up to where the slaughter team was waiting – and then two pyres were lit.

“It was draconian,” adds Moira. “You couldn’t slaughter everything in a day and the pyres added to the pain. If it happened again, that would all be managed differently.

“As a livestock farmer, you give them [your animals] a good life. This was so against everything we strive for.”

As local slaughter teams could not keep pace with the amount of animals involved, either having caught the disease or within the three kilometre cull zones that were put in place, the Army was drafted in under the formidable leadership of Brigadier Alex Birtwhistle who received a CBE for his efforts.

Moira and Robin eventually restocked with beef cattle and sheep, but their fear of a new outbreak lasted for a long time.

William Little, who received the Order of the British Empire in the New Year Honours list, has been on Orton Parish Council for 45 years and its chairman for 41. He was involved in asking the community what they wanted to see on the site and liaising with Defra to make it happen – 92 per cent of people said they wanted a nature reserve and education centre.

“If anybody had told us then what it would become I would have been terrified,” he says. “We had 60,000 visitors in 2019.”

Now it’s a place of dipping ponds and breeding programmes, where the woodlands are managed to encourage endangered species, and where schoolchildren learn, volunteers inspire, and people can explore for hours.

Watchtree is famed for its accessibility, giving young families and those with disabilities the opportunity to get into the wilds. The Watchtree Wheelers is one of its brilliant initiatives, getting people on to bikes, even if they have never ridden before.

“This was a blot on the landscape at the beginning,” says William. “It was that place where they buried all those animals and we needed to take away that stigma. Now it’s an asset. Something good from something bad.”