Foot and Mouth: The funeral pyres that brought agriculture to its knees

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The Independent Online

At its height in late March, it seemed the foot-and-mouth outbreak would never end. The epidemic appeared out of control, despite the protestations to the contrary of the beleaguered Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown.

The images were apocalyptic and went round the world: gigantic pyres of dead animals whose smoke filled the sky by day and whose flames lit up the night. The countryside was closed: ramblers could not walk down paths even in counties where no cases had been reported, while tourist attractions across Britain shut their gates. Bed-and-breakfasts were empty. Farmers were imprisoned in their farms. Disinfectant mats were at every gate. It felt like all of rural Britain was under siege.

Gradually, however, the Government's drastic policy of mass killing of affected livestock did its work, and the infection was "slaughtered out": after 2,030 cases, there have been no outbreaks since 30 September. Looking back now, it is possible to make a preliminary calculation of the real extent of the damage.

Cumbria suffered by far the worst: the county saw 893 outbreaks of foot-and-mouth, and many Lakeland valleys are now devoid of sheep. The surrounding counties were also badly hit: Dumfries and Galloway had 176 cases, North Yorkshire 134, Co Durham 93 and Northumberland 87. Devon had 173 outbreaks, while there was another serious pocket of infection along the Welsh border.

The starkest figure from the epidemic, Britain's worst since 1967, is of slaughtered animals – 3,992,000 of them: 3,248,000 sheep, 598,000 cattle, 142,000 pigs, 2,000 goats and 1,000 deer. A bonfire of four million beasts.

The expense to the Government so far stands at £2.7bn. The largest amount – £1,252m – has been compensation to farmers for slaughtered infected animals, with the next biggest sum - £701m – being the cost of eradicating the disease through slaughter, cleansing and disinfection.

Farmers who had to dispose of uninfected animals received compensation of £471m. Other big sums included £54m for helping rural businesses recover, £18m on tourism promotion, £15m on advice for farmers and £4m for footpath reopening.

But this are just the Exchequer costs. The uncompensated losses to farming and – especially – to tourism run into more billions. For example, thousands of farmers who were within 10km of an outbreak could not send their livestock to market even though they were not infected, and thus saw their income disappear. Nobody has compensated them. The National Farmers' Union estimates uncompensated losses to farmers at £965m.

The losses suffered by the tourist industry are even greater. The English Tourism Council calculates that spending fell 6 per cent, with a total loss of £1.4bn in the first half of the year, and another £1.7bn in the second, and there were similar big losses in Wales and Scotland.

There were big political costs too: foot-and-mouth brought about the end of Maff, the long-criticised Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Nick Brown was removed from his job as Agriculture Minister in June and his department merged with the environment department to create a unified Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

But perhaps the most long-lasting effects of 2001's rural trauma will be indirect ones. Lord Haskins, the Government's "rural recovery co-ordinator", hinted at it in his October report when he suggested the true impact had been "emotional rather than economic". The nightmarish images prompted the fundamental question: is all well with farming?

The Government is opting for a root-and-branch review of agriculture, and three inquiries into the outbreak are under way. The most wide-ranging of these, the Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food, is attempting to take an ambitious look at the place and role of agriculture in society.

It is likely to suggest a changing role for farmers as guardians of the landscape and the environment as much as producers of food. It is likely to mark a radical break with the past. But after the images of foot-and-mouth disease of the last year, it could hardly do less.

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