Cumbria's cows have returned to their pens, but can life ever be the same after foot-and-mouth?

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The Independent Online

After five months' exile outside, the 160 roughbred ewes that graze just 10 feet from Steve Dunning's farm near Orton on one side of Cumbria's Lune Valley were finally being prepared yesterday for the short walk indoors.

An apparently short step for Mr Dunning's ewes is a giant leap for the remote area of south Cumbria where the 48-year-old farms. This week the area became the last region to be downgraded from "infected" to "high risk" status. It means Mr Dunning no longer has to go through the six-week bureaucratic rigmarole of applying to the divisional veterinary inspector in Carlisle for permission to move the animals into his Raisgill Farm buildings for treatment to their sore feet.

According to the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, this marks the beginnings of a return to normality for a county that in April seemed likely to lose its entire sheep flocks and cattle herds. But Orton – and Cumbria – know that life will never return to the way it was.

Orton's economic cycles have been affected irrevocably. Kennedys fine chocolate shop, for example, used to take its milk and cream from the village dairyman. When the dairyman's herd became infected, the dairyman started shipping in his supplies of milk, which was more expensive and didn't taste as good. "Now we'll get it from the supermarket," said the managing director, David Kennedy. "Soon the dairy will change hands and it won't supply milk at all."

Those who are left are having to adapt to survive.

At the village's Monastic Woodcraft studio, where Andy Moseley and Pete Shaw have been hand-making individual pieces of furniture for five years, there was no sign of life this week – but it was probably for the best.

When their sales plummeted by 70 per cent after foot-and-mouth disease hit in February, the craftsmen teamed up with an award-winning local blacksmith, Paul Woodmass, to create three-dimensional sculptures featuring oak, iron and mirrors to "export" to London.

"They'll be up in the Smoke this week, trying their best to make a go of it," said a villager.

There is also imagination at work on the farms. Mr Dunning has formed the Junction 38 co-operative (the M6 is two miles away), through which half a dozen farmers are preparing to invest in their own £600,000 abattoir, curtailing the costs of a 70-mile round trip when beasts are sent to slaughter.

They will slaughter and cure meat themselves and sell it cheaply to local butchers, or through their own thriving farmers' market.

Another development has been the increasingly important role of women. Jane Brook was recently cited by the Prince of Wales as an example of rural economic sustainability after she sought advice on marketing and overcoming bureaucracy from the Prince's Trust. Her championship of the local market has created a lifeline for a number of local producers.

Women are involved in other new revenue streams, including a fierce new push for farm tourism, through the Northern Uplands Farm Tourism Initiative. At Longtown, in north Cumbria, a small co-operative of farmers' wives supported by the Initiative are marketing special-interest holidays – mid-life motorbiking and rug-making – to help spread the new revenues out.

Two of them, Margaret Sisson and Georgina Elwen, lost their families' entire herds to foot-and-mouth disease but are prepared to use the disease to any slim advantage they can find. A marketing push for the co-operatives' product is planned for next February, coinciding with the anniversary of the first outbreak.

Gerald Powley's tourism initiative is even more curious. Having decided to pack up farming after losing his entire herd to foot-and-mouth disease, he has joined up with a local genealogist, Christine Craghill, to attract back for visits the descendants of the hundreds of Cumbrian iron ore mining workers who left for South Africa, Canada and Australia in the early 20th century. They are eyeing next year's Commonwealth Games, to be held in Manchester, as a means of cranking up the business.

"We'll accommodate those who've already done their research on Cumbria and those in the early stages," said Ms Craghill. "We want to communicate the social and economic structures of this area."

Other new business propositions include plans for a micro-brewery, to be created out of a farm building in Kendal, which the Lake District National Park Authority is considering.

Soon the county will know the true psychological toll exacted by the disease: its director of public health, Dr Peter Tiplady, was recently awarded a £250,000 grant to examine the mental consequences which he says are "the single most damaging effect of this crisis".

But for now, Mr Dunning is just waiting for the postman to march up his drive again – his letters still have to be left in a plastic box beside the disinfectant bucket. The "no entry" signs for vehicles are testament to the residual nervousness around the Penrith Spur, where one of the most virulent of the disease's second-phase outbreaks flared up in June.

The next task is to repair the damage done to the community not just by the outbreaks but also by the government compensation payments to farmers which have caused as much division as relief.

"There is a spirit," said Mr Dunning. "We should have had our carol service earlier this week but the church is in an infected area so we just had the mince pies in the pub instead. There were twice as many people as ever, so you might call it a start."