A Dirty Business : The 2001 foot and mouth epidemic
In February 2001, foot-and-mouth disease hit the UK. During the course of the eight-month epidemic there were 2,030 confirmed cases and more than six million animals were destroyed.
Foot and mouth is a highly contagious viral disease that mainly affects hoofed animals, such as sheep, cows and pigs. It is caused and transmitted by picornavirus. There are seven main and numerous sub-strains.
The first symptom tends to be sudden lameness. Blisters will also develop on the nose, tongue, lips and feet. In dairy cows, mastitis is common, their milk yield drops and sterility may follow.
The effect that the disease has on animals varies according to their health and condition prior to infection. Modern systems of animal production, feeding and milking have produced animals who are under a great deal of physiological stress and therefore prone to the most severe symptoms of f&m and other such diseases.
Before the outbreak was detected, bodily fluid on footwear and farm vehicles carrying animals to and from markets and abattoirs helped to spread the disease from one farm to another. The practice of taking sheep from market to market, in an attempt to extract an extra few pounds, intensified the problem. The disease is also thought to have spread through airborne droplets from one farm to another.
As the Ministry of Agriculture admitted in May 2001 (four months after the outbreak started), in 95% of cases, animals who were previously healthy before contracting the disease, survive it. Foot and mouth is rarely fatal, except in the case of very young animals.
However, in order to try and stop the outbreak, within weeks of the first confirmed case, the government ordered a mass cull of animals. The army was called in to help. It was estimated to be the 'biggest combined civil and military exercise in more than 30 years'. (4)
The killing of sheep and cows was a public demonstration of the suffering that factory-farmed animals have to endure behind closed doors in slaughterhouses. However, the fate of the foot-and-mouth disease victims was worse.
There is evidence that animals, having been shot with captive bolt guns, were recovering consciousness and experiencing their own slow deaths piled up with their fellows. While still alive, according to reports, the victims were being drenched with disinfectant. They were recovering consciousness because the guns - which fire retractable bolts - are stunning rather than killing devices. In abattoirs they are used in an attempt to 'render animals insensible' before they are killed by having their throats cut. A great many sheep and cattle, under the f&m slaughter programme, were merely shot with this stunning device.
The army's involvement in the ultra-rapid disposal of hundreds of thousands of sheep also raised the real and horrifying prospect of animals being buried alive.
Young pigs, lambs and calves, whose skulls are too soft for the captive bolt, were killed by being injected directly into their hearts (intra-cardiac). This is a painful and traumatic procedure that the American Veterinary Medical Association outlaws, except where animals are heavily-sedated, unconscious or anaesthetised.
Disposal of the bodies
Across the country, dead bodies were piled onto huge bonfires that took days to burn. Other animals were buried in enormous mass graves.
For weeks after the outbreak began, all areas around Longtown were choked by smoke from these fires that had been started using toxic chemicals, such as kerosene, creosote and red diesel.
Burying animals also causes environmental problems as it can lead to the pollution of nearby underground water reserves.
How the outbreak started
There have been numerous suggestions regarding the outbreak's origin. The army was accused of bringing it in from a foreign country and some suspected that a phial containing the virus had been obtained from Porton Down. (5) The head of the National Farmers' Union, Ben Gill, tried to blame eco-terrorists. (6) DEFRA claimed that it came to Britain through the illegal import of meat from the Far East. While we will never be certain about the source of the 2001 outbreak, it can be confidently stated that a combination of animal neglect, poor regulation relating to the transportation of farmed animals, and the disease-friendly environment of the market system all contributed to its rapid spread.
The horrific conditions in which animals were kept in a Northumberland farm contributed to the initial outbreak.
At Burnside Farm, the owner, Bobby Waugh, took sows from other pig units around the country - animals who were too worn out to have more piglets. He fattened them up and sent them for slaughter. His farm was licensed to feed his animals 'processed waste food', or pigswill, under the Animal Byproducts Order of 1999.
Waugh's pigs were kept in squalid conditions, lying in their own faeces. Dead pigs were left to rot in walkways, others lay submerged in muck. Later, he was to be prosecuted for animal cruelty and banned from keeping livestock for 15 years.
On 20th February 2001, a pig at Cheale's abattoir in Essex was found to have foot-and-mouth disease. The pig was traced back to Waugh's farm. The Ministry of Agriculture (MAFF) vet discovered that all Waugh's pigs were very ill from f&m and had been for a long time. (7)
The National Farmers' Union was forced to admit that something went 'badly wrong' on Waugh's farm. According to a BBC news report, 'this farm was known to MAFF and to trading standards as not the best managed pig farm in Northumberland. They had several opportunities to close it down and they failed to.' (8) Although infected pigs were taken to Cheale's abattoir in Essex, according to DEFRA, this made a 'small contribution' to the epidemic's spread. The main outbreak was said to have been triggered by the virus spreading airborne to Prestwick Hall Farm, Ponteland, a farm close to Waugh's operation.
Sixteen sheep from Prestwick, while incubating the virus, were sent to Hexham market for sale on 13th February 2001. Here they were split into different lots - one going to a dealer who sent the sheep to his home farm in Lancashire. Here, the disease was confirmed on 27th February. A second Prestwick Hall lot was sold to the farmer/dealer and livestock exporter Willie Cleave.
The epicentre: Longtown market
The sheep bought by Cleave, along with others he owned, were kept at Longtown market, before being shipped down to one of his many farms in Devon. Longtown became contaminated and was subsequently highlighted as being the epicentre of the outbreak.
From Longtown, the disease spread rapidly around the country, through 'the movement of infected animals or through contamination of vehicles and people. The bulk of infected animals passing through markets went through Longtown market; some infected sheep passed through more than one market.' (9) Between the 14th and 23rd of February, nearly 25,000 sheep were said to have passed through Longtown, and were thus exposed to the virus. DEFRA believes that the movement of contaminated sheep from this market 'accounted directly for the infection of at least 71 premises, including 20 sheep dealers' premises in Cumbria, Dumfries and Galloway, Devon, Durham, Hereford and Lancashire and three abattoirs - one in Wales (Anglesey) and two in Durham by 23rd February'. (10)
On 23rd February, all movement of livestock had been stopped. However, many farms were already infected. The foot-and-mouth disease 'hot spots', such as Cumbria, Devon and Dumfries and Galloway, directly reflected the original distribution of sheep from Longtown market. Together, these hotspot areas accounted for more than three-quarters of the total number of foot and mouth outbreaks. (11)
At the beginning of the crisis, farmers were allowed to select a valuer to calculate the compensation that they were 'owed'. This resulted in the vast majority of farmers receiving levels of compensation that far exceeded the value of the culled stock. Not until five months after the outbreak began did the government insist that farmers use independent valuers. In its March 2003 report on these compensation payments, the House of Commons public accounts committee stated that farmers were being 'paid six times the going rate for land, and valuers and slaughterers and vets all demanded and received higher fees'. (12)
Foot and mouth millionaires sprung up all over the country. The biggest payment went to a farmer in Scotland who received more than £4 million. Willie Cleave, the farmer whose livestock movements were reported to be a significant factor leading to the spread of the disease, received a £1 million payout.
In March 2001, Farmers' Weekly described how the infection could easily be passed on from diseased animals to those not yet infected, by wiping the mouth of the ill animal with a cloth and then rubbing the cloth onto the healthy animal. 'Although illegal,' the magazine explained, 'the practice demonstrates how desperate some producers are to secure what they believe is fair compensation.' (13)
- The definition of an animal area is given [in Statutory Instrument 2003 No. 1723 4 (3) (c)] as being 'the area to which animals are given access'. This is further defined as including 'pens, runs, sale rings, loading and off-loading areas and ramps' by the Animal Gatherings (England) Order 2003 Guidance on implementing the conditions . . . 2 (c).
- The new regulations and their subsequent amendments are set out in various government edicts. Notably, there is a series of Animal Gatherings Orders made under the 1981 Animal Health Act - plus Guidance Notes that support these Orders; also Rules for Livestock Movements.
- Animal Gatherings (England) Order 2003 Guidance 1 (d) (1)
- The Guardian April 14 2001, MAFF fails to meet slaughter targets
- Porton Down is the country's leading warfare laboratory, where thousands of animals every year are subjected to lethal experiments in the name of national defence.
- The Guardian May 15 2001, Ecoterrorists caused outbreak, says NFU chief
- The Guardian June 29th 2003, Foot and Mouth farmer banned for fifteen years
- DEFRA June 2002, Origins of the UK Foot and Mouth Disease Epidemic in 2001, p.8
- ibid p.9
- The Guardian March 14th 2003, Greedy farmers blamed for huge tax bill
- Farmers' Weekly March 23rd 2001