Tim Backshall: Reporting on foot and mouth

Tim Backshall Credit: ITV News

Just like the current pandemic, when foot and mouth broke out in the UK in February 2001 few of us could have predicted the impact it would have on our lives.

The first signs of the disease were found in a pig at an abattoir in Essex on February 19th. A long way from Cumbria and southern Scotland, we thought.

In the Border TV newsroom we decided to speak to a local farmer who remembered the last foot and mouth epidemic in the sixties, but most of us thought little more about its consequences.

Within days, though, the source of the outbreak was discovered to be a pig farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall near Newcastle. It was now much closer and farmers here were starting to get worried.

Shortly after came the devastating news that infected sheep had been unwittingly sold at Longtown Auction Mart and the focus of national attention was suddenly on our region. Some local farms were being tested and we waited with baited breath for the results. 

I can still very clearly remember presenting our evening news programme, Lookaround, on March 1st 2001 and having to read out the shocking news that four local farms had been confirmed with foot and mouth.

Their animals were being slaughtered and fires were being lit on the farms to dispose of the carcasses. We knew just how frightening that news would be to the farming community. 

Archive Credit: ITV News

Even then, though, I did not fully realise the consequences of what we were dealing with. Almost immediately a huge pyre was lit close to where I lived and the smoke was visible from all around for several days.

The landscape, it seemed, changed virtually overnight. The sickly smell from those pyres is something few will ever forget. 

More and more cases were confirmed in the coming days and we, as a news provider, decided we would read out the names of every single farm that was affected, to give viewers the very latest information.

These were the days before social media and people were turning to us for the most accurate and up to date news. Some nights the list of confirmed cases seemed to go on and on. 

I remember going away for a short holiday abroad early on in the crisis. When I returned everything seemed to have moved up another gear.

We were now having to spray the wheels of our cars with disinfectant and make sure our shoes were similarly free of any trace of the virus when we headed into the countryside. The emotional cost of the epidemic was brought home to me shortly after.

Tim speaking to farmer Les Armstrong in 2001. Credit: ITV News

I was sent to see a local farmer who we knew well. Les Armstrong was a high-profile spokesman for the National Farmers Union in Cumbria and had kept us updated during the crisis. Now his farm, near Kirkoswald, had somehow succumbed to the disease.

We could not go onto his farm, so the interview was conducted over a hedge. His raw emotion and the tears rolling down his face at losing his animals seemed to sum up what so many people were experiencing. 

It was one of the most important interviews I have ever conducted and seemed to strike such a chord with everyone who saw it.

People who were not from farming communities could see what the crisis meant to those who were affected. It was certainly one of the most heart-rending days in my reporting career. 

I have been back to visit Les for our coverage of the 20th anniversary of the outbreak and again he seems to speak for so many. He reminded me that at the time he said his farm would get over it and explained with pride how they rebuilt and how today he is very optimistic about the future of farming. 

"If I'm honest I'm really pleased with the way we've gone in the last 20 years," he told me. "I might add that I'm really positive about the next 20 as well." 

There were many other dark days too. I remember filming at a farm near Penrith on the day that the mass burial site at Great Orton airfield came into use.

The first trench prepared with the help of the army at a disused airfield near Carlisle. Credit: PA

Almost half a million sheep would end up there, killed to try to stop the disease spreading any further. The farmer was lambing his ewes in the knowledge that they were all about to be culled the same day.

The pictures of the animals being buried in huge pits were some of the most shocking of all. Many, to this day, will question the scale of the killing. 

The army was coordinating the response to the epidemic by now, as Cumbria and Dumfries and Galloway were the worst affected parts of the country.

People have likened the region at that time to a war zone, with soldiers around and smoke burning everywhere. I have certainly never seen anything like it. 

People from the tourist industry queue up to sign on at the job centre in Keswick, Cumbria. Credit: PA

As the politicians realised the scale of the problems we were visited by the Prime Minister, Tony Blair as well as the Scottish First Minister, Henry McLeish and many more besides. I was at the Shepherd's Inn in Carlisle when Tony Blair came for his first visit.

There was a sense that the UK government was acting too slowly and crowds of angry people heckled him as he got out of his car. After speaking to local officials and farmers he held a short news conference where I asked him simply what they were going to do differently. 

"What we have to do is just massively gear up to the scale of the challenge that we have and make sure there's absolutely nothing, no piece of little bureaucracy, no obstacle that stands in the way of getting the job done," he told me. He would later delay that year's general election for a month while the government tried to get on top of the disease. 

There was a huge impact too for the tourism industry. Footpaths were closed and as pyres continued to burn many people cancelled their trips to the Lake District and Dumfries and Galloway. Most countryside events, including the agricultural shows, were also abandoned that year.  

As a reporter it was a time like no other. Our coverage went on daily throughout the whole seven months of the crisis and the many months of rebuilding afterwards. I hope, more than anything, that we met the need of people at the time for accurate information and explanation. 

Twenty years on I look back with a sense of sorrow for what happened but also optimism about how communities can bounce back. For the 20th anniversary I have revisited many of the people and places that we went to in 2001.

Archive Credit: ITV News

I have heard of the lengths that farmers went to to rebuild, some diversifying and finding much greater success than ever before.

Tourism businesses quickly found themselves back to normal, aided by confidence-boosting holidays in Cumbria the following year by Tony Blair and Prince Charles. 

Perhaps the most uplifting story is of the Watchtree Nature Reserve, created on the site of the Great Orton burial ground. Its journey from foot and mouth to being a popular visitor destination speaks volumes about the resilience of people in this region. 

William Little, a founding director of the reserve explained: "If anyone had told me 20 years ago what it was going to be like now I would never have believed them....it could have been something that was a blot on the landscape for the local community, whereas now it's an asset for the community." 

Many have spoken about the parallels between the epidemic then and the current pandemic. Seeing how well Cumbria and southern Scotland rebounded from foot and mouth can, I believe, give us hope for a similar recovery from this current situation.