24 August 2001

Looking to a future beyond the tragedy

In the week Scottish farmers

flocked to Britains first

commercial livestock sale

since foot-and-mouth began

six months ago, we chart

how the disease took hold

and look ahead to how the

regions are planning to

recover

By Alistair Driver

CRAIG Kirby knew something was wrong. The Meat Hygiene Service vet was checking a batch of pigs before slaughter at the Cheale Meats abattoir in Essex. The animals were squealing as they walked. They had blisters on their feet.

Suspecting swine vesicular disease, which resembles foot-and-mouth, Mr Kirby stopped the slaughter line and phoned the local MAFF office. The animals were blood tested. "I knew something very odd was happening, but when the call came the next day with the results my hand started shaking from nerves," he says.

Six months and some 2000 cases later, almost 3.8m animals belonging to more than 9150 farmers have been slaughtered. Everyone connected with agriculture has been touched by disease controls and countless livelihoods have been wrecked. DEFRA predicts that the cost to the taxpayer will top £2bn.

Still nobody knows where it will end. New outbreaks of the disease, which peaked at almost 50 cases a day in early spring, continue to be discovered. The resumption of livestock sales in Scotland is a welcome step on the road back to normality. But it is clear that nothing will ever be the same again.

DEFRA minister Margaret Beckett says farmers must look beyond farming to survive. Her message is reinforced by key advisers such as Lord Haskins. Food subsidies will be phased out within 10 years and farmers must diversify, says junior farm minister Lord Whitty.

Some farms are already well down this route. But others are defiant. Ian Williamson and his son Andrew, who spent their joint-birthday in March watching livestock burn on their Northumberland farms, dont take kindly to suggestions that their future may lie outside farming.

"It is not easy getting by without any income at all and it will be even be even harder next year," says Ian Williamson. "But I am an out and out farmer and I believe me and my sons have an important role to play as farmers. I do not want Tony Blair to import all our food."

Herefordshire farmer and sheep exporter Kevin Feakins was identified by the government as one of two livestock dealers responsible for spreading F&M. His main occupation now is chasing the government for £270,000 he says he is owed in compensation. His last quarterly phone bill was £2000.

"Dealing with the government officials has been a nightmare. They are worse than the Bolivian mafia," says Mr Feakins. "It is difficult to know if I will ever export sheep again. The government is not going to let us survive if it can help it."

The future for livestock dealers hangs in the balance after the government blamed the high numbers of sheep traded in February for spreading the virus. It responded by proposing new laws forcing livestock to remain on new premises for at least 20 days before they can be moved again.

David Brown, secretary of the Livestock Auctioneers Association, says the 20-day ban will have a dramatic effect on livestock markets and a much greater effect on farmers and traders. "Markets were not to blame for F&M. That was the government looking for someone to blame for their own shortcomings."

Even though markets have been closed for the past six months, Mr Brown expects most will be in a position to resume shortly. "How many will survive in 12 months from now is a different matter. If you kill between five and 10 million animals it makes it difficult for the markets that trade them to survive."

Markets and farmers will also suffer from the contraction of the abattoir sector. Kent-based Invicta Lamb, which exported 90% of its produce, closed early in the crisis. Winders, which operates abattoirs in the North West, has gone into receivership.

Peter Scott, director general of the British Meat Federation, which represents large abattoirs, predicts that more markets will close. Slaughterhouses are also under threat. At any one time, only 150-180 out of 400 abattoirs are open, he says, before adding: "Fewer than half the red meat abattoirs are operating."

Cheale Meats, the abattoir at the centre of the crisis in February, is once again slaughtering for the food chain, but only at 70% capacity. Owner Paul Cheale says he sat in his office with his head in his hands when the disease was confirmed on his premises.

"It has been extremely difficult, especially without the export market as we used to export half the meat we processed." Half a year on, many farmers know the feeling only too well. But what they also need to know is how much more pain and heartache there will be before the future glows brighter.