NFU Scotland livestock committee chairman and Melrose beef and sheep farmer Rob Livesey recalls the impact of foot-and-mouth a decade after the worst outbreak

Rob Livesay
Rob Livesay

The 2001 foot and mouth outbreak was just totally depressing, it was frightening. You feared for your business and your livestock and the community and the psychological affect on the whole rural community, especially those people who were directly involved in it. It was horrendous and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.

I would like to think we won’t have another outbreak but nothing is ever 100 per cent secure. We are no less likely to get infected but we are much less likely to have the spread of the disease. Movement controls on livestock are much improved especially with sheep. That has been quite painful for the industry to implement but we are in a far more robust position now so the disease would be unlikely to spread anything like as bad as it did in 2001.

The concern about FMD is how it affects markets and the whole industry, not just those directly affected by the disease, because we can’t export - the market gets shut for at least six months from when the last infected animal is found. That was really very hard and was felt particularly by the sheep sector after 2001.

The proposed use of vaccination looks to mean there would not be the same mass cull we saw in 2001. It has the potential to save high value animals and those of high genetic merit but it looks as if it is only really going to be effective in beef and dairy herds. It looks as if the pigs vaccine will be as good as useless because it would only be done to breeding stock, not young stock, and any breeding sow will be valueless because nearly all sows are exported.

Concerning sheep, the common view from the last outbreak is that there was a lot of unnecessary slaughter of sheep and that they were blamed for more of the disease spread than they did. Sheep spread FMD widely initially because they were dispersed throughout the country through markets prior to the disease being detected. But, due to sheep generally being farmed more extensively, they spread the virus less effectively. It may be in a future outbreak that there would be a much reduced cull or that vaccination may not be necessary in the sheep flock.

But there is real potential in the cattle sector here to reduce the spread of the disease by using the vaccination and it could be particularly useful for the dairy sector because it wouldn’t interfere with production; farmers could continue to milk after they vaccinate.

Other concerns are that vaccinated animals could be devalued in the market place because of public perception, and that needs to be addressed. The public may feel they don’t want to consume meat products from a vaccinated animal although people eat meat from animals that have been routinely vaccinated for other diseases and there is not a problem. But that argument is still to be had: the industry needs a clear sign from consumer groups and the retail sector that the vaccination wouldn’t devalue the product.

Another issue is that the movement controls would be much stricter on vaccinated animals and that could cause problems: welfare issues could arise from that because of a lack of movement and it might limit their market.

My overall impressions about vaccination are that it is a possible tool but it certainly wouldn’t be the answer – it’s part of the armoury.

The difference we now have with the vaccination, which we didn’t have before, is that there is a marker in the vaccination that can tell the difference between infected animals and vaccinated animals and thereby we can track the infection path. An animal infected must be slaughtered but one that is tested and found to have been vaccinated can live.

The issue of disposal of carcasses in an outbreak has yet to be decided. In the past we had burning pyres which was a terrifying sight for everybody, and in 2001 we also resorted to burial and that has problems in itself. I think the government would like to render the slaughtered animals but the agricultural industry has concerns about the movement of infected animals to processing.

It worries us as farmers today when we see fallen stock collectors not observing the biosecurity we would like to see: in the event of an outbreak of disease that would be a much more serious threat. The Government is opening this discussion to attempt to persuade us that rendering is the best way forward. We have yet to be persuaded.

Import controls is the big issue - it doesn’t matter how much we do ourselves, if import controls are not strict enough we are fallible to the infection reaching our shores again. We are far more lax than the USA, Australia and New Zealand - they target everybody. We should have sniffer dogs in all airports and ports of entry. That would give us reassurance.

This is an issue for everybody, not just to prevent foot and mouth.