20 years since the foot and mouth disaster hit the region

  • Special report and article by Tim Backshall.

This week marks 20 years since the foot and mouth epidemic that devastated large parts of Cumbria and southern Scotland.

It led to more than six million animals being slaughtered nationwide and tourism businesses losing millions of pounds, as the countryside was virtually closed for months. 

Between them, Cumbria and Dumfries and Galloway had more than half of the 2,026 cases nationwide. 

Cumbria was the worst affected area of the UK with 893 separate outbreaks. Dumfries and Galloway was second with 177 cases. 

Credit: ITV News

How the Border region came to be at the centre of the crisis:

Foot and mouth was first spotted in pigs at an abattoir in Essex on the 19th of February. 

Four days later, February 23rd, the source of the infection was found to be a pig farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall near Newcastle. It's thought the animals had eaten infected meat waste from abroad.

By then it was too late to stop the disease spreading. It had already passed through the air to a neighbouring sheep farm at Ponteland. 

Before anyone even knew that foot and mouth was in the country, infected sheep from that farm had already been sold at Longtown Auction Mart,  mixing with animals that went across the country, including many to Cumbria and southern Scotland. 

Credit: PA

It has now been estimated by DEFRA that before the first Cumbrian case was confirmed, at Longtown, there were at least 38 farms in the county that had been seeded with the infection.

The disease had a head start of several weeks and it would take the authorities a long time to catch up with the speed that it was spreading. 

The first case in Cumbria:

On the 28th of February Smalmstown Farm at Longtown was confirmed to have foot and mouth. It is thought that one of the people milking the cows, who also worked at Longtown Auction Mart, inadvertently spread the disease to the farm's dairy herd, as he touched their udders.

The animals ended up with large blisters, one of the signs of foot and mouth. They had to be killed and in line with government policy were burned on the farm to try to prevent the highly contagious disease from spreading. 

The farm is run by Moira and Robin Fisher. In an interview with ITV Border to mark the 20th anniversary of the disease, Moira said: "We had to block off the road ends and not let anyone onto the farm and wait for someone from the Ministry to arrive. 

Moira Fisher. Credit: ITV News

"I remember Robin coming into the house, at the time the children were five and seven, coming up the stairs at about half five, six o'clock and saying there was a problem with the cows and the vet thought it was foot and mouth and just being absolutely gutted, and disbelief, thinking surely not.

"We had two pyres unfortunately which engulfed Longtown in this most horrible smell." 

Their son Tom, now 27, remembers being kept off school and the sights and smells of the burning. He said: "The constant smouldering and the smoke lurking over the farm. It just felt like a dark place all of the time. Seeing mum and dad upset was a big, big, thing for me."  

By the 1st of March cases had been confirmed near Penrith, Lockerbie and Canonbie. 

Within days smoke from the pyres transformed the landscape. Thousands of sheep were culled as a precaution and you could drive for miles without seeing a single living animal. 

Archive footage Credit: ITV News

Longtown Auction Mart: 

Two sales had been held at the mart on February 155h and 22nd, before any connection with foot and mouth was known about and before the government stopped the movement of animals. At the time it hosted some of the biggest sheep sales in Europe. 

Harry Begg was an auctioneer at the site at the time. Recalling what happened he told us: 

"Longtown market was selling every Thursday, anywhere between 10,000 and 15,000 sheep weekly so once they (the infected sheep) came in here it was a firestorm." 

Closed road near Seathwaite in Cumbria's Duddon Valley during the foot-and-mouth crisis. Credit: PA

Impact on tourism:

The tourism industry was devastated as most footpaths were closed to try to stop people spreading the disease on their boots or car wheels.

The sight of burning pyres on the television news also made people think twice about a visit to popular tourist areas like the Lake District and parts of Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders.For many tourism businesses the visitors simply stopped coming. 

Protest against the government's slaughter policy at Dalston Hall in Cumbria as Prime Minister Tony Blair arrives. Credit: PA

Government response:

Prime Minister Tony Blair was heckled as he arrived in Carlisle to assess the situation on March 22nd. He brought the army in to try to get on top of the disease and a huge burial site was created at Great Orton airfield, near Carlisle, to dispose of almost half a million animals. 

It is believed that that year's general election was postponed for a month because of the crisis.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) was abolished and replaced with the current government department, DEFRA, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. 

The wheels of a lorry are cleaned with high pressure hose. Credit: ITV News

End of the crisis: 

The epidemic was to last for seven long months, with the country's final case reported near Appleby on September 30th. 

It had cost Cumbria's agricultural industry £130 million and its tourism sector an even higher amount of £260 million. 

Most farmers restocked their farms and carried on, with a number deciding to diversify into new ventures such as farm tourism. For some though it brought mental health issues.

Twenty years on few will forget the impact of the crisis. Some farmers liken the isolation they felt at the time to today's pandemic. 

Watchtree Nature Reserve. Credit: ITV News

Watchtree Nature Reserve: 

One of the success stories from foot and mouth is the way the Great Orton burial site for animals has been turned into a popular tourist attraction, Watchtree Nature Reserve, drawing around 60,000 visitors a year.