Foot and Mouth 20th anniversary - How nature blossomed after the foot and mouth tragedy

  • Video report by Tim Backshall.

All this week we've been reflecting on the anniversary of the foot and mouth outbreak that devastated this region.

Among the worst sights from that time was the mass burial site for animals at the former Great Orton airfield near Carlisle. 

The former world war two airfield was chosen as the site to dispose of hundreds of thousands of animals as the country tried to get on top of the foot and mouth crisis. The vast majority were sheep, killed to try to slow down the spread of the disease.  

Watchtree Nature Reserve. Credit: ITV News

Afterwards the local community decided it wanted to change the perception of this area and turn what had been private land it into somewhere for everyone to enjoy. 

Over the last 20 years the land has been turned from a place of tragedy into one that's a haven for all sorts of different species.

Watchtree nature reserve was opened three years later and attracts tens of thousands of people each year.

Founding Director, William Little. Credit: ITV News

Founding Director, William Little said:"When we looked round it was a terrible sight. It was just like a world war battlefield really and I decided and so did several others who were here that night from the local parish councils we couldn't just leave it like that. We had to do something with it and try to make something positive out of it for the future." 

It's not just a haven for wildlife, it's also a popular site for families - the paved ideal for youngsters to try out their skills in a safe area.

Manager of the nature reserve Ryan Dobson told ITV Border: "Watchtree is a 205 acre reserve made up mainly of four different habitats, wetland, scrub, woodland and hay meadows and we have lots of native Cumbrian species which now call this home. We try to adapt and maintain their habitats to keep them happy and keep them breeding in this area."

Manager of Watchtree Nature Reserve Ryan Dobson. Credit: ITV News

The site received money through the People's Millions project, a collaboration between ITV and the Big Lottery Fund. 

One aim was to help people with disabilities use adapted bikes on the site. Visitor numbers have been affected by Covid but normally 60,000 people a year now come to Watchtree.

Chairman of the Trustees Richard Speirs said: "You would never really have imagined that you could get something as wonderful out of such a sad event at the time and really it means more now than it did 20 years ago, the work that's gone on at Watchtree to make it a much valued community resource is tremendous." 

Chairman of the Trustees Richard Speirs Credit: ITV News

Perhaps more than anywhere the site has come to symbolise the recovery of the region from that terrible time of foot and mouth 20 years ago. 

William Little said: "If anyone had told me 20 years ago what it was going to be like now I would never have believed them because it's just exploded. When 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."