Fordyce Maxwell: These things happen. Farming will survive

Six years ago, an industry was devastated, but – for all the tears - farmers coped. It's their job to be tough, says one of their number
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The Independent Online

It is the pauses during phone conversations I remember most clearly as farmers unused to showing emotion found they were crying and could not speak. Some had to put the phone down. Others, once they had recovered a little composure, could not stop talking.

And as they talked of having to close doors against the sound of gunfire, the loss of animals they had invested a lifetime in breeding, how the pyres of railway sleepers and coal were proving difficult to light and how the smell of incinerated carcasses hung in the air, like every journalist trying to pull a story together, I watched the big clock on the office wall tick towards another deadline.

It was all part of a running battle to separate emotion, anecdote and rumour from fact as the foot and mouth epidemic of 2001 ran out of control, hitting hardest in south-west England, Northumberland, Wales, Cumbria, the Borders and south-west Scotland.

It was not until more than seven months after the first case was confirmed in pigs at an Essex slaughterhouse on 20 February that the last case was recorded, on 30 September. In between, more than six million animals had been slaughtered on more than 9,000 farms. Farmers who had stock slaughtered received more than £1.7bn in compensation. Animal movement restrictions and lost business hit thousands more who received no compensation. Nor did thousands of small rural businesses brought to a standstill. Total cost to the economy was put at more than £8bn.

I reported the facts, but behind them were the horrors on the ground. Everyone involved from farmers to village shop-owners, from bed and breakfast proprietors with no visitors to vets, slaughtermen, hauliers, soldiers, pyre-builders and men digging vast pits which would soon be filled to overflowing with suppurating carcasses, had their own story.

Too often in the early days they were tales of political incompetence and bureaucracy causing fatal delays, fuelling internet conspiracy theories that the epidemic was part of a government plan to wipe out British farming, using the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food – Maff, or as farmers were soon calling it, the Maffia. Changing its name to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Defra, didn't help. Farmers watching slaughter, pyres burning, pits filling and the smell of death, took to calling the re-named organisation Deathra.

Opinions divided as fears rose that a virus which modern motorways and livestock dealers had helped spread hundreds of miles within a few days could wipe out British livestock farming. Many full-time professional farmers accepted that slaughter was the most effective form of control. If animals had to be shot, the sooner the better.

Many lifestyle farmers with a handful of animals, kept as pets not for profit, disagreed and argued for vaccination. The media majored on the deaths of small white calves, animal sanctuaries, a goat here, a pet pig there.

Foot and mouth was not new to Britain, although the last previous case had been in 1968, after which a government-commissioned report looked at lessons learned and made recommendations for any future outbreak.

It quickly became clear in the spring of 2001 that politicians had paid no attention to those recommendations, including one for an immediate clampdown on livestock movements as soon as foot and mouth was confirmed anywhere in Britain. It was several days after 20 February before that clampdown came. By that time, infected sheep from a large clearing market at Longtown in Cumbria had travelled by lorry to many parts of Britain.

Much of this information dribbled out at it does in a running story as those fire-fighting the epidemic ran from crisis to crisis and I found that reporting horror by proxy was not easy.

I've spent much of my life as a journalist, but also spent more than a dozen years as a full-time farmer. As rural affairs editor of The Scotsman I was in the thick of reporting the epidemic of 2001, but as 15-hour day followed 15-hour day in those early weeks, part of me was selfishly thankful that I was at arm's length.

That was particularly true during one almost surreal three-day spell a week into the epidemic. Snow fell heavily in the Borders where I live, the electricity went off, as did phone, internet and central heating. Only a mobile phone and battery radio kept me in business. Then I remembered that a few years earlier I would have been out trying to feed animals. As I fretted about the heating going off in a suburban house, farmers were getting ready for work, pulling on thick socks, sweaters, Wellingtons, hats and gloves. Many would not have slept well, if at all. The twelth case of foot and mouth had been confirmed, slaughter had reached 7,000 and many more farms were under investigation as preventative ring-fence slaughter was being considered and the Army was about to be brought in.

A farmer I had spoken to during the previous night's final, final check, had told me: "People know where to find me – I've been on the toilet most of the day. Panic, man, absolute panic."

He lost animals in the North-umberland outbreak of 1966 when there were 32 cases involving 45,000 animals. He remembered, as I did, the 1968 Cheshire outbreak with 2,360 cases and more than 400,000 animals slaughtered. Neither of us, in that late- night, late February conversation, had an inkling of the slaughter still to come in 2001. Next morning I only felt guilty about sitting warm and unaffected, listening to suffering second-hand.

But what I did know at that early stage, a feeling that became stronger as too many journalists treated an animal disease epidemic as another Kosovo, was that farming and farmers would recover. I knew that because I come from a long line of tenant farmers. I knew how my family and their neighbours were reacting. I knew, that, even now at their lowest ebb, most farmers were planning recovery.

This was not the death of the countryside that too many city-based journalists predicted. As they wrote their bleeding-heart articles, they underestimated the resilience of farmers and their families and their staff. Even as many cried at seeing a life's work wiped out, they were planning for the future.

Foot and mouth was cataclysmic, but only one of many problems farmers have faced, not least and always the vagaries of the weather and in the past few years increasing bureaucracy, removal of subsidies, the conviction that the government of the day is against them, and the power of supermarkets. The historical trend of fewer, larger-scale farmers continues, only partly offset by the number of hobby farmers using city and business money to buy big country houses with land and livestock.

Foot and mouth in 2001 devastated large areas of the countryside. Some farmers decided to quit. A few committed suicide. Many found that talking to counsellors, and even journalists, was a lifeline. But most, phlegmatic and determined to stay in business, said "these things happen" and got on with it. There's a lesson for all of us there.