Friday, 11 February 2011

A Tenth Anniversary.

Ten years ago this week marked the start of the most traumatic happening farming had seen for a long time - the outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease. I thought it might be an opportune moment to remind you about it. We had an outbreak here on our farm in April of the same year - an outbreak which changed our way of life for ever. So here is an account of the day we found out that we had the dreaded disease.

It was a lovely early Spring Sunday. The farmer got up as usual at 6.30am and milked the dairy herd. By 8.30am he was in for his breakfast.

I had decided to try a new recipe for lunch, an Elizabeth David pork recipe and I was eager to get on with the preparation. Breakfast over the farmer went out to walk round his sheep and I prepared the pork and put it into the oven.

An hour later he came in, pulled a chair out from under the kitchen table, sat down and announced that he thought we had foot and mouth - in the sheep. He had seen one sheep on its own in the corner of the field and had gone over to investigate. Opening its mouth he had seen the tell-tale blisters and knew immediately what it was.

We had all been given a plan and we put ours into action immediately. I rang a telephone number in Leeds and reported our fear. We were told to shut the farm gate, allow no-one on to the premises and wait for arrival of the vet.

That was the longest two hours of our lives. The meat came out of the oven but neither of us could eat. We stood in the window looking out on to the road, watching for the vets arrival. He arrived at around 1pm, looked at the sheep, confirmed it was Foot and Mouth and then put the whole farm under an order.

The lane was blocked off; large signs were put up; slaughter men were summoned; valuers arrived to value the sheep and the cattle; everything was out of our hands.We had had five new calves during the previous week and I had been feeding them all. Now I had to face the fact that they were all about to die.

The dairy herd of about seventy cows had almost all been bred by the farmer and he knew each one intimately - number 55 was a real character - if a new calf was born out in the field 55 would steal it and make off with it as she so loved being a mother. Each cow had its own personality and he loved them all.

We were advised to stay indoors, which we did. By 4pm every animal on the farm was dead. The cows and the sheep were laid out in rows in one of the meadows.

Then it was time to build the bonfire. A giant pit was dug and layers of wood, coal etc. were put down and the animals piled on top and by Tuesday night it was time to light the giant funeral pyre. We had no desire whatsoever to go out and watch but the vet persuaded us to do so. And he was right. We stood in a circle round the pyre - everyone who had been involved in building it, in slaughtering the animals, in valuing them - we were all in it together and we got a kind of solidarity and comfort from it. The vet gave each of us a plastic cup and came round with a bottle of whisky and insisted that each of us had a drink. That loosened the farmer's tongue somewhat and at last he was able to talk about it (he is always best at bottling things up).

Both of us were stunned by the whole thing but our sanity was saved by the fact that once the vet had come on to our farm and identified the disease he had to stay put, so for a week or so he lived with us and he really kept our spirits up. I had to cook meals because he needed to eat and we ate in order to be sociable.

It was a bereavement from which we recovered only slowly. We then had to endure weeks of being disinfected - all the sheds and buildings, all the yards, every inch had to be cleaned and sprayed with disinfectant. And again the two men who worked here doing the work kept us going. I would bake them scones for afternoon break, or we would sit and chat over a cup of tea - and it all kept our spirits up.

Eventually we were back to normal. In the September we had a holiday in Dumfries and Galloway, an area which had suffered as much as our area - we felt an affinity with them somehow.

Of course we recovered. We never went back into milk and after ten years the whole thing is a distant but painful memory. But then nobody ever said farming was easy. There will always be setbacks - always be swings and roundabouts - but I sincerely hope that nobody will ever have to live through a time like that again.


jeanette from everton terrace said...

Wow, I can't even imagine. I have tears in my eyes just from reading this. I remember being in England at the time (on holiday) and the steps they were taking at the airport because of it all. How devasting it was for all of you.

The Poetry Bus said...

Fascinating and deeply touching account Weaver. By coincidence we were living on a dairy farm in Wicklow at the time and the fear was palpable.

If this doesn't spur you on to poetry, then I don't know what will!

mrsnesbitt said...

Oh Pat - I remember we were out near Hawes and the policemen advised us not to go any further - unless our journey was necessary. Riding home on the motorbike we saw the signs and groups of farmers meeting together by the farm gates - and we saw the smoke too.
Years later it was so encouraging to see the often empty fields housing new stock - it was a sign of hope.
May we never see such a sight again.


The Poetry Bus said...

THat's me by the way, TFE, don't ask me why I'm suddenly THe POetry Bus (even though I am!) Computers have devilish minds of their own!

Reader Wil said...

How horrible Weaver. All those animals, some of them probably still healthy. It's such a major tragedy. Here in my country we had all kind diseases too. Pigs, goats, cows, chickens were at one time slaughtered for some disease. All farmers were devastated.I hope that this won't happen for a long time.

angryparsnip said...

How unbelievably heart breaking. I too have tears in my eyes.

I remember reading about this and devastating it must be for the farmers and their families.

take care
cheers, parsnip

BilboWaggins said...

Deeply moving, hope it was cathartic for you to write this down. I didn't live here ten years ago (we're near Cockermouth now) but I remember watching TV and sobbing. Cannot imagine how you got through it. There was a TV advert for the Samaritans at the time. In black & white, it simply showed an elderly farmer leaning on a gate sobbing with the headline "it's not just animals who are affected by foot and mouth". An image I will never forget.

Whenever I drive to Carlisle I have to go past Great Orton {shudder}

And the sad thing? It will happen again unless you are allowed to vaccinate your stock.

Leanne said...

well written and very moving Pat.

Leanne x

Rarelesserspotted said...

Thank you for this courageous blog, a deeply traumatic event told with dignity and humanity and truth. I remember watching the television pictures with abject horror. My thoughts are with you on this sadest of anniversaries.

Heather said...

Your account is heartrending Pat and I can only try to imagine what a devastating blow it must be to discover that one's stock has this awful disease. It was a good thing you could all draw strength from each other while the grim but necessary procedures were carried out.

Pondside said...

What a terrible time that must have been, Pat. I remember when there was an outbreak in Denmark in the 80's and how it affected some family members. When one reads about such a disease in the papers one has no idea of the toll it takes on the farm family.

Golden West said...

What an ordeal for you all. You've recounted those days most movingly, Weaver.

Hildred said...

I can understand the sorrow you must have felt, - you and the Farmer, - but it is hard to comprehend how devastating it must have been. Such sudden tragedy, and the great loss of all your day to day work and plans and dreams. It was a blessing that you had others around you to help you recover your equilibrium.

Penny said...

Thank heaven so far it hasnt come to Oz but I predict it will one day, every thing is so close and I believe it is n Korea at the moment. We were coming to the UK when it was announced and as we were going to stay with farming friends stayed home, but their descriptions were horrific.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Bilbo Waggins - thanks for calling - I wanted to pay a return visit but can't seem to get onto your blog.

Tramp said...

A heartfelt account of what must have been a traumatic time.

Dave King said...

Well, this is both a dreadful post and a brave and brilliant one. I c n imagine what it would have been like - only I can't, of course, but with the help of your post perhaps can get a bit closer. A bereavement is probably as close as anyone could get.

Bovey Belle said...

I can remember this only too well, though farming neighbours were fortunate and escaped this dreadful disease.

Your experience has brought tears to my eyes - and indeed, it was a bereavement for you both - very brave of you to set it down in words - even ten years on.

Mary said...

It's not often I'm brought to tears on Sat. morning while enjoying my first cup of coffee and visiting my favorite blogs, however your account of that terribly sad event has done this, big time!

I went home that Spring and recall taking the National Express from Gatwick home to Devon. The fields were so empty of life and I saw where animals had been destroyed. How unbelievable that time must have been for you and the farmer Pat - how strong you are to write this personal account.

Yes, I also recall having to walk through the disinfectant pan at the airport on my return - but most of all the quiet sadness permeating the beautiful British countryside remains in my memory. I hope this never occurs again.

steven said...

weaver - to be inside this experience for the first time is an awful and eye-opening experience for me. of course i've read the newspaper accounts but nothing that reveals the very real experiences of the people involved - and of course the animals. thanks for opening my eyes a little wider. steven

The Weaver of Grass said...

Thanks for the comments. It all seems a very long time ago now and I think we have all recovered well - many to diversify and do things they would never have thought of doing before F and M - so it is not all bad news.

hart said...

This is an awful story, I am so sad you had to go through it. Poor 55, at least she is remembered. --hart
(a very frequent reader but only occasional poster.)

Lisa said...

I can't add more than what has already been said except to say thank you for this very personal account. It is good to know your farm has recovered and the memory is just that - a memory.
Take care, Lisa

Jeannette StG said...

Oh, gut wrenching, Weaver. There's only one way to recover from such grief: slowly. But I'm glad you did.