Legacy of the killing fields


Even the English king Edward I failed to escape the ravages of foot-and-mouth. Two years ago renovation work began on a simple monument erected on the flat marshlands of the Solway Firth in Cumbria to mark the spot where the 'Hammer of the Scots' breathed his last in 1307. Then came foot-and-mouth and all movements through farmland were stopped, the work was halted and has now fallen around a year behind schedule.

Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) may be gone bar the odd suspected case, the latest last Friday proving negative, but arguments over the government's handling of the crisis mean the recriminations will be felt for a long time to come.

Allegations that the government is seeking to cut back the state veterinary service by continuing its recruitment ban on vets, restricting the use of 'casual' vets and scrapping overtime will inevitably bring accusations that it has not learned the lessons of last year's epidemic.

There was always going to be anger and distrust from those affected by the crisis which cost the country some #8 billion, particularly after the government resisted calls for a full public inquiry into the outbreak. But five months after the UK was reinstated on the list of countries free of foot-and-mouth, tracing FMD from its first appearance in the country showed that anger is smouldering still.

Last week, the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs posted the results of its investigations into how the outbreak began and spread, concluding that the source of the outbreak, although most likely contaminated meat from abroad, will probably never be known.

What is known is that foot-and-mouth was first identified in pigs on February 19, 2001 during a routine abattoir inspection in Cheale, Essex. The animals were traced to their source and the disease found at Bobby Waugh's pig-fattening unit at Burnside Farm, Heddon on the Wall, just east of Newcastle. The disease spread, apparently by the wind, to sheep on a neighbouring farm which were then sold at market. Then the slaughter began. More than six million animals were killed by September 30, when the 2026th and final FMD case was identified at a farm near Appleby, in Cumbria.

As a result, Bobby Waugh's name will forever be associated with foot-and-mouth. Waugh, whose pig outfit has been identified as the outbreak 'index case', awaits court sentencing on Friday after having been found guilty last month of failing to notify the authorities of the presence of foot-and-mouth, causing unnecessary suffering to his animals and feeding them unprocessed food, a possible source of the disease.

Northumberland County Council's trading standards department, which brought the charges against Waugh, insists the aim was not to find a scapegoat.

Farmers, at least in the north of England, do not seem to agree. Perhaps surprisingly, they do not hold Waugh to blame and instead consider him a scapegoat for what they see as government complacency which turned into ineptitude as the outbreak engulfed the country.

Much of Burnside has since been bulldozed and lies vacant. Hard-packed earth is all that remains of the farmyard where Waugh kept two large pig sheds and his office. Three further huge sheds have been gutted and disinfected and now house a few horses. The owner -- Waugh was a tenant farmer -- has plans to turn it into an equestrian centre.

'Pigmen get nothing, there's no subsidy for the pigman,' complained Joan Brown, who with her husband Jimmy and two sons, young Jimmy and Steven, farmed pigs next door to Waugh until foot-and-mouth devastated their business.

The Browns took me on a tour of their premises, including the boilers where the pigswill they fed their pigs was brewed. They said Waugh used their pigswill too, but in cold weather when the pipes bringing it 100 yards or so to Burnside froze, he scooped the unmashed stuff -- crockery, cutlery and all -- from the boiler and into drums and wheeled it down the road to feed his swine.

Pigswill has since been banned and the Browns' business is gone. The boiler lies empty, scrubbed and disinfected, but is unlikely to be used again. Likewise, the stall where their pigs were kept is bare. Their pigs were among the first to be slaughtered and burned along with Waugh's in a great pyre on the Browns' land. Bone fragments still litter the field.

'It was a horrendous few days,' said Jimmy.

Yet the Browns harbour no bitterness towards Waugh over the destruction of their business. They blame ministry officials who examined Waugh's premises in January and gave him a clean bill of health. They can't understand how, if Waugh's pigs had foot-and-mouth as far back as January, their own pigs didn't catch it.

'They turned too many blind eyes to Waughie,' said Jimmy. 'You've got to speak as you find and his place was rough. But I can take you to a couple of places still worse than that. I can't see how it started with Bobby because the vets would have found it.'

He claims the restrictions were lax at the outset. The stream of vets who came to study Burnside and the press wandering around turned it into a 'tourist attraction'. He himself admits going to the pub after lighting the pyre in breach of the exclusion regulations.

'It's just one of those things that happens,' he added, 'and they're looking for someone to blame.'

A flurry of reports into the FMD outbreak are now beginning to see the light of day and they do not make comfortable reading for the government. The National Audit Office's report into the outbreak, released last Thursday, shows the government was warned two years before foot-and-mouth that its vets could be overwhelmed by rapid spread of the disease. Defra minister Margaret Beckett maintains it shows the ministry did much that was right in its handling of the crisis.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh, which is due to produce the results of its own inquiry this summer, is expected to be highly critical of the government's adherence to a policy of 'culling out' infected herds rather than allowing vaccination of animals that would probably survive the disease. The explanation given at the time -- with the NFU its most outspoken advocate -- was that the UK had to maintain its FMD-free status for economic reasons. A region is judged FMD-free if there are no new cases three months after slaughter. FMD-free status could until recently only be achieved one year after vaccination, but that has since been lowered to six months by the Office Internationale des Epizooties -- which sets sanitary rules for international trade of animals -- making the economic argument over vaccination versus slaughter far less cogent.

Over in The Swan in Heddon, the barmaid Claire, whose father-in-law's animals were culled, said Waugh's prosecution was 'a bloody stitch-up'.

'We had 450 sheep, 20 tups and 150 cattle culled and lying in a shed for 10 days before they could go on the pyre. If they had done something quicker and had a plan in place, then it would have been better.'

'If I got my hands on the government ...' she added, shaking her head.

Foot-and-mouth was confirmed at Burnside on February 23 last year, yet experts from the National and World FMD Reference Laboratory of the Institute for Animal Health in Pirbright found evidence that the disease was present in pigs on February 12 and could have been present as early as January. The virus is considered to have become airborne and spread to sheep on a neighbouring farm.

Controls on movements of animals were imposed on February 23, but by then it was too late -- at least 119 farms in 11 regions were already infected. This delay between the onset of the disease and reporting to the authorities was judged by Defra to be an 'important factor' in the epidemic.

Of the total cost of foot-and-mouth, some #5 billion is reckoned to have been lost to the tourist economy, according to the NAO. In the market town of Hexham, the next stop in the fateful transport of infected sheep from Heddon, Robert Keeney was holding a closing-down sale. His two-year-old fishing and shooting gear shop lost over 90% of its trade last year when rivers including the Tyne were closed to fishermen and the land was closed to shooting.

'I had one year in business and then foot-and-mouth came. Tourist trade makes up the bulk of my trade but they just didn't come. We didn't have a chance, ' he said.

Keeney didn't receive any compensation for the loss of trade but was offered a maximum of #7000 as a marketing loan.

'Heddon was supposedly the start of it but what can you do? It's only one man. The bulk of it is down to the government.'

Hexham vet Roger Scott still demands that visitors disinfect their shoes before entering his premises next to the mart. Scott too was critical of the government, but also of Waugh, particularly for failing to alert the authorities to the presence of foot-and-mouth in his stock.

'I don't see how you can call a man in his position a scapegoat,' he said.

He congratulated the government on the 20-day stand still rule, introduced since the outbreak to slow down the spread of any disease by forcing farmers to hold on to animals for at least three weeks before they can be sold on.

'I believe the virus has now gone from this country but it could be brought in by foreign meat again because it's still endemic in many parts of the world. As long as this country continues with this absurd policy of shipping vast quantities of infected meat in we are in danger of having this outbreak again. Bobby Waugh was not the primary cause of the disease. It was foreign meat imports.'

Defra has responded by introducing a single sniffer dog in an attempt to stamp out illegal meat imports, according to the NFU.

One-third of Scott's clients lost their stock to foot-and-mouth, but it was those who didn't get culled -- and received no compensation for loss of business -- that have been worst affected, he said.

'The government should have looked after the farmers who weren't culled because they have turned out to be the real victims.'

Eastwards to Cumbria, the worst-affected region with 893 infected premises. The area saw the mass burial of 460,000 carcasses at Great Orton airfield, second only to the Birkshaw Forest site in Dumfries and Galloway, where almost half a million carcasses were buried.

Much of this is down to Longtown mart, outside Carlisle. Longtown, until recently the biggest sheep market in Europe, was at the centre of one of two paths by which the disease spread, the other being via Waugh's pigs which were sent to Essex. Sheep had been moved to Longtown, via Hexham, from a farm neighbouring Bobby Waugh's pig unit and sold on February 15 last year. Thus the disease spread to Hertfordshire, Devon and into southern Scotland. A further sale was held on February 22 prior to the government imposing restrictions on animal movement.

'After that the rest's history,' said Longtown auctioneer Haig Murray. 'They took all the sheep down from farms round about here with them. It wasn't until over a week later we found out what happened.

'If they had put that movement restriction in place the minute they found the problem in Essex (on February 20) we would never have had that second sale and it would never have been as bad. In two days, the 15th and 22nd, over 20,000 animals went through here. Prior to foot-and-mouth we would sell up to 20,000 sheep in one day, starting at 7am and finishing at 11pm. Today we sold 1200 -- our business is wiped out.'

Murray was pessimistic about the prospects of lessons having been learned from the outbreak.

'The government didn't act quickly enough to nail the problem, but (infected meat) should never have been allowed into the country. As things stand, it could happen again tomorrow. It wouldn't spread the way it did but you could have an isolated outbreak tomorrow. Let's just hope they act quicker next time.'

Murray said only a few farmers were choosing to restock in the wake of foot-and-mouth, with the new 20-day stand-still rule one of the prohibitive factors. This meant sheep were all sold at the one time in a glut, leading to lower prices.

'They took out two million sheep in this area and they're not back. That's why our business is gone. We contacted in excess of 200 farmers before this auction and three-quarters of them have no sheep.

'You've seen the auction on market day; it's something magical, it's interesting and lots of people come for the craic. When you're selling it's buzzing. Now it's just dead.'

Lawyers for Bobby Waugh are meanwhile advising him on the possibility of an appeal, in which case they say, one possible outcome, would be a complete new hearing at which the arguments over the whole saga would be rehashed.

That wouldn't help Longtown mart, nor for that matter would it speed up work on Edward I's monument. But it would prove the point made by people across Northumberland and Cumbria: the true story of foot-and-mouth has a long way to run yet.