Most of us are happy to commemorate a cheerful anniversary such as a birth or wedding, or 50 years for a family on the same farm.
Commemorating a depressing anniversary such as a death or farming disaster is different. That’s why I have mixed feelings about the 10th anniversary of the start of the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic this weekend, February 20.
Radio and TV stalwarts such as Farming Today and Countryfile, as well as regional news programmes, have carried extensive reports on what happened a decade ago. Although they have tied that in with discussion on “What would happen now if there was an outbreak?” I’m not sure that most of us need reminders of the slaughter of more than six million animals, burning carcasses and tears that dominated the news for weeks on end in early 2001. It was the outstanding example of farming only making news headlines when the news is bad, and the horrors of that time are embedded forever in the minds of those directly affected. Probably, too, in the minds of those living on the edge of areas where foot and mouth was rampant, waiting and wondering whether their animals would start to show the telltale symptoms or how their business would be affected.
Also the realisation within a few days that the 2001 outbreak was nothing like previous foot-and-mouth outbreaks of what was then still fairly recent memory, such as Northumberland in 1966 and Cheshire in 1968. They seemed bad at the time, and were for those affected, but in retrospect were local and confined.
By 2001 fewer, bigger auction markets, motorway links and busy dealers buying and selling for farmers throughout the country meant that the foot-and-mouth virus spread rapidly from the Borders to Devon and points between.
Again with hindsight, that perfect faculty, all livestock movement should have been stopped as soon as the first case was found in old sows in an Essex slaughterhouse on February 20. Instead shutdown was not until three days later when the damage was done.
From then on it was horror piled on horror, Foot and Mouth reaching Scotland on March 1, dealing with the early cases in the Borders complicated by – again you won’t need reminding – the worst snowfall for some years.
And so the disease rampaged on for more than six months, leaving in its wake not only more than six million slaughtered animals, but bitterness and arguments about compensation that had been set much too high in the early stages, allegations of deliberate spread of the disease to get that compensation, the anger of farmers who suffered livestock movement and other restrictions and lost money, but got no compensation, and the much-publicised resistance to slaughter control by hobby farmers with photogenic animals.
Naïve as I am, I hadn’t heard the term “bed and breakfast” to mean farmers bringing in animals temporarily to boost numbers and claim more subsidy. But some were doing that.
Small wonder that as well as much genuine sympathy from the public, farmers and Government were vilified in a vast network of conspiracy theories circulating on the still fairly new internet and hurtful rumours ran riot.
As I noted earlier, few of us need reminding of any of the above, or the moving interviews, or the sorrowful conversations we had with farmers who had seen flocks and herds slaughtered. Not forgetting the thousands of rural businesses that suffered the knock-on effects of a temporarily-devastated countryside.
But, on reflection, perhaps a reminder of how farmers and farming and rural businesses recovered from the 2001 epidemic is worthwhile.
During that year I lost count of the number of bleeding-heart articles I read about the end of farming and death of the countryside when it was obvious that the main ambition of most affected farmers was to restock as soon as possible and get back to work.
Not all did. Some took the chance to change their farming system or change their way of life. But most wanted to continue doing what they thought they did best – farm with cattle and sheep.
Nationally, sheep and cattle numbers are lower than before the slaughter of 2001, but that has as much to do with the economics of the past decade as Foot and Mouth.
As for the question of what would happen now, remember that there was a small outbreak, rapidly controlled, in Surrey in August 2007, ironically originating at a Government research centre, when an immediate ban on any livestock movement anywhere in the UK was enforced.
But slaughter is still the first line of defence, even if vaccination continues to be debated, and traceability of animals has, or should have, improved greatly since the horror days of 2001.
We can only hope we never again see anything like that slaughter, see those plumes of smoke, or smell that smell.