20 years on: Foot-and-Mouth, hope from the ashes of tragedy

Memories that will never erased

Official records estimate that six million sheep, cattle and pigs were culled during the Foot-and-Mouth outbreak of 2001. The exact amount was likely much higher.

Many farmers had to watch everything they’d spent their lives building burning before their eyes. The effects of Foot-and-Mouth rippled throughout the whole of the UK – even those with little connection to farming watched the pyres on TV and saw its impact on the countryside and the wellbeing of those living and working in rural areas.

Emergency rules prevented the public from accessing farmers’ land and farmers were put into quarantine, unable to leave – and in some instances return – to the farms they lived on and tended to.

The parallels of the disease with the situation we find ourselves in today are surprising – just as Covid-19 was first identified in Wuhan, China and spread rapidly throughout the country and beyond, Foot-and-Mouth’s first case was reported in an unassuming Essex abattoir in February 2001. Within weeks the disease had spread throughout the UK, taking much of the rest of the year to bring under control.

The Army was quickly brought in to help with managing operations in parts of the country. Many areas were put into lockdown, with limitations on travel and transit.

Not all farms had Foot-and-Mouth, but all farmers were affected – the implications of the outbreak threatened the existence of their businesses. Movement restrictions prevented them from selling any cattle; banks and feed suppliers wouldn’t extend credit limits; and access to feed and bedding was made far more challenging. Some farms failed. For those who survived, it took many years to recover.

The long-term scars of Foot-and-Mouth are still felt today. Many images remain graphic in the memory of those who experienced it – palpable fear; gut-wrenching anxiety; family distress when life-long achievements were destroyed; the iconic fires; the smell of slaughtered livestock; and organizational chaos, especially in the early stages while officials and farmers alike scrambled with working out what to do.

This year (2021) marks the 20th anniversary of Foot-and-Mouth in the UK. It is a time to reflect on its impact, but also to consider the ways in which communities came together to overcome this period of immense sorrow and adversity. FCN played an important role; part of a much larger picture, with many rural support organisations and groups across the UK working tirelessly to support farmers through this crisis.

From the ashes of tragedy emerged hope.

The role of FCN and other support organisations

The Farming Community Network (Farm Crisis Network at the time) had formed in 1995 as a joint venture between the Agricultural Christian Fellowship (ACF) and Germinate: The Arthur Rank Centre. It was spearheaded by Christopher Jones MBE, who now serves as the charity’s Honorary President, and a dedicated network including farmers and ag specialists. By 2001, FCN already had an established reputation supporting farmers through crises.

During Foot-and-Mouth, The Addington Fund, originally established in Suffolk to help farmers at the time of a Swine Fever outbreak, became a key channel for public donations. It was to raise and allocate over £12 million to farmers, including almost £1 million in Yorkshire alone.

FCN played an important role in supporting farmers during this time, with some volunteers working 18 hour days. Over the weeks and months, as the situation worsened and the disease spread, the calls kept coming and FCN coordinators across the country listened and responded as best as they could.

Regularly volunteers would have barely put the phone down and started writing a report on the previous call before another one came in. All over the country farming families came to terms with the outbreak either on their own farm or nearby.

They were worried for family, friends and neighbours. Many felt alone, but found a trusted friend in FCN and the many volunteers who earnestly cared and understood the psychological and financial devastation felt throughout the nation.

Personnel from FCN, RABI and professional bodies conducted financial appraisals by telephone and faxed the recommendations for support to panels of farmers based at the Arthur Rank Centre in Stoneleigh, Warwickshire. There was a real sense of collaboration between farmers, rural charities, agricultural chaplaincies and many other organisations doing their best to support farming families during this time.

Samaritans, the Rural Stress Information Network, the NFU, RABI, the Arthur Rank Centre, The Addington Fund, churches and many others were integral in supporting the farming community. Countless individuals – some still with us and some unfortunately not – dedicated themselves to helping farming families through this dark time.

Foot-and-Mouth illustrates the vital role played by FCN’s volunteers during difficult times. Teams of FCN volunteers made thousands of calls and financial appraisals, but also listened, empathized, encouraged and even at times wept with their fellow farmers.

Amidst the pandemonium of trying to deal with so much – each person different, yet so aghast at what was happening in their lives – many within the farming community found it heartening that FCN was there, willing to listen, to try to understand and to ‘walk with’ people as they went through a very dark part of their lives. FCN has maintained its ethos of ‘walking with’ the farming community ever since.

Through the anxiety and the fear, many who called FCN also shared a word of thankfulness that someone was listening. FCN volunteers who are still with the charity today describe this ability to listen as one of the key skills they learned during the crisis.

The lessons learnt in 2001 were put to good effect in FCN’s response to the smaller outbreak of the disease in Surrey in 2007. Today, FCN is still here to help people pick up the pieces, find a way around the trauma and make something of their passion for the land, the crops, and the animals they care for.

Hope rising from the ashes

There was a picture in the papers in 2001 which for many summed up both the sadness at the time and the amazing spirit that kept people going. It depicted a muddy little lamb, unfazed by the mud and skipping joyously beside his mother. They were muddy because they could not be moved off the pasture as it involved crossing a road, which was not allowed. The lamb – in the midst of it all and yet seemingly contented and undaunted – was a source of inspiration for many.

Amidst the turmoil and tragedy, there were great examples of hope, unity and acts of kindness in the farming community.

In one such situation, a mother from the north of England rang FCN about her son, who she was worried about. He was just starting up farming with sheep on a small acreage in Suffolk. Living in a caravan, he had no time to make friends. He was shut up indoors as a possible Foot-and-Mouth case. He had fodder for the sheep but no way of getting anything for himself. FCN made a series of phone calls to the local Women’s Institute which meant that food was delivered to his gate twice a day, plus several cakes until the crisis passed and he was given the all-clear. He made many new friends in the process.

In another instance, a farmer was desperate for fodder. Nearby, another farmer had plenty to spare. After FCN put them in touch, the second farmer shared his bales with the first, driving them to his farm on a forklift and placing the bales over the top of the hedge for him to safely access.

On many occasions FCN volunteers heard of stories of almost unknown villagers and neighbours leaving groceries and heartfelt messages at the farm gate, encouraging farmers to stay strong and assuring them that they would get through these difficult times.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) was pursuing a relentless slaughter policy, and preparations were put in place for a huge burial pit at Ash Moor, just north of Hatherleigh in Devon. Thankfully, the site was never used and is now cared for by Devon Wildlife Trust, who have transformed it into a wonderful network of meadows, ponds and wetlands. That this location – once prepared for death – now serves as a sanctuary for wildlife is a strong metaphor for how hope can rise from the ashes of uncertain and challenging times.

In the aftermath of Foot-and-Mouth, the quiet of the countryside was eerie and disconcerting. The scars of the disease faded but never disappeared completely. Those who pulled through remained on guard, aware of how so much could be taken from them so quickly. Many found it hard, and still do today, to reflect on the memories and the trauma experienced.

But the many acts of kindness seen throughout the farming community, from the public outpourings of support; from neighbours and friends; from volunteers and charity workers; and from everyone in between, also live on in our memories. These bring light and hope, and the same indomitable spirit of a muddy little lamb, skipping optimistically beside its mother, wide-eyed and ready to face the world anew.

Article written by Alex Phillimore, Marketing and Communications Manager, The Farming Community Network

Many thanks to FCN volunteers:

Howard Petch Michael Sellers Jim Hope

Sally Fogden Peter Lawrence Neville Lane

And everyone else who contributed thoughts and reflections for this article.

We would like to thank all our current and past volunteers for their contributions in what they have done in past, in what we do today and what lies ahead for our farm community.

Special thanks to Christopher Jones MBE, FCN’s Founder and Honorary President, for his vision to establish FCN and to the many agricultural chaplaincies across the UK that continue to support rural communities. We would also like to thank our Patron, HRH The Prince of Wales, for his support of the work FCN does helping farming families.

If you are worried about a fellow farmer, or have any concerns of your own, please call 03000 111 999 or email help@fcn.org.uk to speak with an FCN volunteer who understands farming life. All calls are confidential and non-judgemental.

Read an illustrated version of the article below:

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