On 19 February 2001 news spread that a case of foot and mouth disease had been discovered on an Essex farm. Far from isolated, within two weeks livestock from Scotland to Cornwall had been found to have the disease as one of the biggest crises in the history of British agriculture began.
The public became painfully accustomed to our television screens being littered with scenes of tangled limbs and mass livestock graves streaming with smoke, through which the future of our industry could not been seen.
For over a year restrictions were in place to prevent any movement of livestock. Footpaths were closed, markets shut down, 90,000 animals were slaughtered each week at the peak of the crisis but most of all, farming livelihoods were shattered.
I was just 10 years old when my life was brought to a standstill, but the horror of the disease is still etched in my memory. Posters at the local market stating “Remember 2001? Dip your feet” send shivers down my spine to this day.
I missed almost three months of school to avoid infection from a neighbouring farm that had contracted the disease; my parents worked tirelessly to retain a level of normality and tend to the herd of 50 jersey cows in their care, despite the challenges facing them.
It was a lonely time.
But the impact on me was very little to that of the wider farming community. Suicide rates soared as incomes fell, morale was at an all time low with isolation cases growing as the disease ravaged through the rural community.
The empty stillness of destroyed farms left devastated led to suicide rates in farmers growing tenfold as the loss of much loved stock, broken finances and pure guilt swept through communities.
Almost 10,000 workers lost their jobs with a third of those leaving the shattered industry forever. Other sectors suffered as tourism nosedived but the resilience of farmers stayed strong.
Author Michael Morpurgo depicted it perfectly when speaking about his childrens’ novel, Out of the Ashes, saying:
“I was looking out of my window and I saw three fires burning on the hillside. I love this countryside and I think of it as a kind of paradise. I suddenly thought at that moment that this paradise is being turned into some kind of hell.”
After seven long months of this hell, in September 2001 as the smoke of over six million incinerated livestock began to clear the news was announced that the outbreak was over and the farming community began to dust themselves down.
But 15 years on what have we really learnt?
A mass failure by the ministry saw rules introduced that are still in place today, as the bitter memories of 15 years ago live on. But above all the strength of our community has remained strong and the resilience of farmers has shone through.
Perhaps much of this we already knew, but foot and mouth disease changed the lives of every farmer each in their own way, the financial and emotional scars are still etched on the faces of some but as an industry we carried on, because that’s what farmers do.