Ten years on from foot and mouth - lessons learned

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ten years ago this week local farmers held their breath and hoped that the outbreak of foot and mouth disease amongst sheep, cattle and pigs that had started at Heddon-on-the-Wall in Northumberland would not find its way onto Berwickshire farms.

Over the following weeks throughout March and into April, the spread of the disease got ever closer but it wasn’t until the end of April that the first case was confirmed at Crumstane Farm Park, Duns, quickly followed by confirmation of the disease in sheep and cattle at Rulesmains, Duns.

The first funeral pyre of farm animals took place at Hopestead Farm, Coldingham, although no animals there were confirmed as being infected. But sheep there were thought to be too high a risk because calves on the same farm had come through Longtown Market, a central point from which the disease spread. The calves, however, were saved as testing showed them to be free of the disease.

In one grim week in the Duns area 711 cattle, 8636 sheep and 802 pigs were slaughtered as agriculture officials attempted to stem the spread of the disease and during the outbreak.

But it wasn’t only the farming community that was badly affected by the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak, the region’s tourism industry was decimated as the countryside was virtually shut down, and even five years later it was reported that measures to help the rural economy had effectively failed.

Now ten years on an investigation has revealed that areas like Berwickshire are still struggling to recover from the ravages of foot and mouth disease. And some believe that there is every chance that it could happen again.

Former NFU Scotland president Jim Walker believes another outbreak is likely.

“We are very vulnerable, it will definitely happen again,” he said.

“We are more vulnerable now than we were three or four years ago. It is always possible that foot-and-mouth disease could come in at any time.”

“The border controls are almost non-existent and the way that international trade and food and people go we will definitely suffer disease infection again. It will be very difficult to carry the farming population and the country with us.”

By the time the outbreak had been brought under control 187 farms had animals infected and a further 1,048 farms lost animals because of the practice of culling all sheep, cattle and pigs within 3km of infected sites. Altogether 735,000 animals were slaughtered and it was estimated that the cost to Scotland, with the Scottish Borders and Dumfries and Galloway the worst affected, was nearly £30 million.

Despite the devastating impact on individual farmers who lost their entire livestock, Mr Walker believes that the correct approach was taken in dealing with the outbreak.

“It was definitely the right thing to do,” he said. “It was brutal, it was fairly horrible and none of us took any pleasure in doing it. But the industry got a chance to recover quicker - you could see that for months after we were clear of the disease, England were still struggling to take control of it.”

However, Mr Walker is not convinced that if/when foot and mouth breaks out again that the same control methods will be used, one of the main reasons he gives is that Scotland does not have a budget for animal health matters despite having been given control over them.

More optimistic that lessons have been learned and the country is in a position to respond immediately should there be another outbreak, Chief Veterinary Officer Simon Hall believes steps have been taken to learn the lessons of 2001.

“We are doing more to keep foot-and-mouth out of the country,” he said. “That includes tightened controls on imports of meat.

“As soon as we find foot-and-mouth anywhere in Great Britain in future we will then immediately stop all movements of animals. Hopefully, then we have a smaller problem to deal with and we can take more targeted measures in only culling animals when it’s necessary.”

He insisted that Scotland was well-placed to handle any problems which arose, saying “In Scotland we have short lines of communication and good cooperation.”

“I think we would again be able to mount a very effective response if an emergency arose.”

However, he did recognise that the threat of an outbreak still remained.

“It could happen at any time but it may not because our border controls are now improved and we have measures in place to stop it spreading so quickly,” he said.

“I can’t give an absolute reassurance.”

Chairman of the NFUS in Berwickshire at the time was Andrew Morgan and although afterwards he agreed that farmers had been fairly treated the impact on the wider rural economy had not really been addressed.

Speaking this week Mr Morgan said: “We are definitely back to where we started from before foot and mouth arrived here and I think we have recovered remarkably quickly.

“However, there’s still livestock being imported from Europe, and there is foot and mouth in Bulgaria.

“It’s a disease that travels very easily and even people going on holiday to Bulgaria could bring it back.

“There is still a danger and we have to be aware of it.

“The Scottish Government has reacted well and set up border controls, in my opinion better than England.

“If there is another outbreak I don’t think we will go back to the mass slaughter like last time, nor would we close down the countryside like last time.

“It was only farmers that actually received compensation and those of us who had to hold back stock didn’t get any compensation.”

Farmers who lost their livestock were compensated to the tune of £1.34 billion while only £39 million was given to the business recovery fund aimed at rural businesses that suffered losses.

“There was a feeling that those farms that got foot and mouth were actually better off afterwards than those who didn’t,” agreed Andrew.

“At the time of the outbreak I agreed with the decision for the mass slaughter of animals but I’ve actually changed my mind on that and believe that vaccination would be better.

“The Government didn’t have enough vaccination for that particular strain of foot and mouth in 2001 and although I believe there are stock piles now, there’s no guarantee that it would be effective as like many diseases it mutates over time.

“Since the 2001 outbreak we have had another incident in 2008, plus diseases such as blue tongue which is coming from the Continent and these have made us very aware of animals movements.

“They are keeping everyone on their toes and that can only be a good thing.

“If there was another outbreak the decision now would be to stop animal movements immediately, the trouble it by the time is has been spotted, there will have been lots of animals in contact with each other.

“The other thing that has changed since then, on the sheep side of things, is the introduction of electronic identification ear tags. While I think they might help, I personally think that the Government is being too pernickety about it.

“There’s no doubt that tagging is right but I don’t think that lambs that are born on a farm and remain there until they go for slaughter are a great risk.”

Andrew feels that Government officials aren’t spending enough time of checking import, specifically older ewes that go to dealer and then are sold on from farm to farm.

But while farming may have recovered relatively quickly it took other rural businesses, such as tourism, far longer to recover and even five years on rural economies had not regained their pre-2001 position.

In 2006 a report from the Centre for Rural Economy at Newcastle University stated that five years on household incomes in rural areas are lagging behind the national average.

A key reason, said researchers, was the failure of government policies designed to help develop rural economies since the foot and mouth crisis.

They concluded that “The mishandling of the FMD outbreak meant an animal disease wrought havoc on non-farming businesses in rural areas,”