It has been a crisis characterised by some desperate visual spectacles, but few in the five weeks since foot-and-mouth first surfaced matched the moment, just after 10am yesterday, when 200 sheep flooded out of a transporter on to the concrete at Great Orton's disused airfield in Cumbria.
Apparently healthy and hasty to be free of their confinement, the sheep tripped into aluminium pens where food and water awaited them.
Then they were led in groups of up to 40 across 50 yards of concrete to covered huts and to their death by electric bolts, delivered through their heads by officers from the Army catering corps and civilian slaughtermen. They were the first victims of Cumbria's mass cull of healthy animals.
The livery of the green, four-deck, open-sided transporter that carried them, Wm Armstrong (Longtown) Ltd Livestock Removers, marked out their doom, signalling their proximity to the market to which the foot-and-mouth virus was transported from Heddon-on-the-Wall, 40 miles to the east.
A respectful silence greeted the wagon: the turbines of the nearby giant windfarm stopped for 20 minutes from the precise moment the vehicle rolled in.
David Kidd's sheep were somewhere among the wagonloads that arrived at Great Orton through the day. He had signed them away to two of Armstrong's men who arrived with an empty wagon at 8.30am to remove their farm's 1,100 feeding and breeding sheep.
The Kidds busied themselves with milking their small herd of cattle when the sheep had gone but it was a desperate day the first since the 1890s that the family has not tended to sheep on these fields.
David Kidd was resigned, but angry. He'd passed at least two farmyards full of dead, unburied cattle and sheep on his short, two-mile drive to the farm yesterday morning. "How can they let them all litter the country, then say there's no risk? It makes no sense," he said, shaking his head.
Ken Preston's sorrow was probably greater. By lunchtime yesterday, he had delivered four lambs from two of his ewes taking his stock of new lambs to 419 for the season. None of his herd shows signs of foot-and-mouth but they, too, were being valued at breakfast time in readiness for removal to Great Orton, probably within a few days. For Mr Preston, the cull has brought bewilderment to the very last. He only secured confirmation on Tuesday that it was compulsory, not voluntary as many Penrith farmers still appear to think.
For an individual who has spent the past 28 years seeing lambs off to the slaughterhouse, the cull is a chastening experience. "It's a very big thrill lambing, fetching something into the world and giving it a good life to the best of your ability," he said. "Delivering them knowing what will happen now is desperate. We love these creatures."
There was an abundance of concerned voices as the cull proceeded. Animals killed in slaughterhouses cannot, by law, be killed within sight of each other, said Compassion in World Farming's director, Peter Stephenson. But those at Great Orton could. "They have the added distress of being killed not just in front of each other but on top of each other, cheek-by-jowl," said Mr Stephenson.
The RSPCA was also concerned that animals may be only stunned and not killed outright, unless their nervous systems were destroyed by a process known as "pithing" in which a rod shoots through the brain. "If the animal's nervous system is not destroyed [it is] possible the animal could gain some awareness and feel pain," said RSPCA chief veterinary officer, Chris Laurence. This may lead to the "horror scenario" of animals being put into the burial pits while still having awareness, he said.
The Army insisted that two vets would accompany each batch of sheep and ensure that all animals were dead before burial in the 10 airfield pits, which will soon become 15.
In a demonstration of the Army's determination to tackle the crisis, Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, and General Sir Michael Jackson, commander-in-chief of land forces, visited Great Orton yesterday. Foot-and-mouth, said General Jackson, was an "unseen enemy, a different conflict to a war. The Army is assisting on request throughout the country. We will do our best to meet these requirements."
Mr Hoon said a backlog of carcasses remained a priority. "Army butchers ... are now working alongside their civilian counterparts."Reuse content