Foot and mouth: Twenty years since the disease swept through the region's countryside

Foot and mouth cost the public sector £3 billion and the private sector £5 billion. Credit: PA

By Julia Barthram

Twenty years ago, foot and mouth disease swept through the countryside, six million animals had to be slaughtered nationwide and tourism businesses lost millions of pounds. 

The outbreak, which began at a pig fattening unit in Northumberland, brought businesses to ruin and kept families virtually locked in their homes for weeks and months.  

Burning funeral pyers blotted the landscape in affected areas and two mass burial sites were created at former open cast coal mines.

The virus reached Hall Hill Farm at Lanchester in County Durham, on March 23rd 2001.  All 1500 animals were slaughtered in a day, it took six months to clear the land for livestock to return and the visitor attraction was closed for a year.

Ann Darlington, who runs Hall Hill Farm, spoke to Tyne Tees about her memories.

Fear of spreading the disease meant many farms locked down, with no one allowed in or out.  For children on the farms it often meant missing school.  Richard Darlington was ten during the outbreak and missed weeks of school, he has now re stocked Hall Hill Farm with sheep and runs the farm alongside his mother.

How the outbreak began:

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 Hexham Auction Mart and on again at Longtown Auction Mart in Cumbria, mixing with animals that went across the country, including many to Cumbria and southern Scotland. 

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. 

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 Northumberland, the Yorkshire Dales and Moors. For many tourism businesses the visitors simply stopped coming. 

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 the public sector £3 billion and the private sector £5 billion.

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.