BRIGADIER WHO LED THE ATTACK ON F&M
Fighting foot-and-mouth was the toughest job he faced in a
distinguished military career spanning more than three
decades. But Brigadier Alex Birtwistle soon gained a firm
but fair reputation among farmers. The NFU even made him
an honorary member. Tim Relf asks him about F&M
and his new role in a countryside charity
BRIGADIER Alex Birtwistle is sitting in his new office – an isolated, converted farm building perched on a hillside in Cumbria. He leans back in his chair, lights a cigarette and reflects on the five weeks he spent in the front line fighting foot-and-mouth. Its quieter now. Hes retired from the Services. He can reflect.
"Were not proud of what we did, but were proud of the way we did it," says the 53-year-old who led the Armys involvement in the crisis.
It was late March and, with the epidemic dominating every headline, causing panic and rattling the government, the Services were seen by many as the only solution.
Brigadier Birtwistle was brought in to head the Armys role in the mass slaughter and burial site at Great Orton, Cumbria. It was a Herculean task: April, youll remember, was when new outbreaks were raging and Cumbria was – and still is – the worst-affected county. Latest MAFF data shows nearly a million animals slaughtered there – among them the Brigadiers daughters pet lamb.
"We were seen as the potential saviours," he says. "But I think many of the farmers doubted, when we started, if wed ever get it under control."
He had, in fact, been due to retire in early April but postponed it after a request was put in to the MoD for him to stay on. "Im old enough to know that a request is an order," he says.
Not, of course, that he considered walking away. As a countryman – and self-confessed "frustrated farmer" – hed been moved by the suffering. "It never crossed my mind to say No."
Ask him now what the Army brought and hell tell you, immediately and convincingly, of its experience in dealing with crises and bringing multi-agency teams together. Ask him, however, why he was chosen to head the operation and hes less forthcoming. Self-effacing, even. Hell say he was "the local lad". Hell refer, reluctantly and if pressed, to his ability to analyse, think laterally and take in diverse facts. "To know what you dont know."
But he was, he maintains, just a "figurehead" for a team made up of the NFU, MAFF, the Environment Agency, the police and contractors.
Either way, he was catapulted into the spotlight. "I wasnt well known at all outside the Army before then. I was just another old fart of a Brigadier."
But soon there were TV appearances and newspaper interviews. People became interested in him. With the crisis unfolding under the glare of the worlds press, he at times became the story. "It was surreal."
His new-found fame prompted the letters to flood in. "I got one the other day," he says, "addressed to Brigadier Birtwistle, a farm somewhere in the Lune Valley." Others have come from old friends, people he hasnt been in touch with for nearly 30 years. There have even been, he adds laughing and lighting another cigarette, a couple from old girlfriends from his days as a student at Cambridge.
"Foot-and-mouth was the most difficult thing Ive ever been involved in," reckons Brigadier Birtwistle. It was unlike any enemy he had faced before. When youre fighting a human, you can try to see things from their point of view to inform your decision-making. "But you cant put yourself in the mind of a disease."
Also, in every other operation he has been involved with, the team has rehearsed together. But F&M was different. There was no team in place. No structure.
"We had to build a team and rehearse it at the same time as it was operating," he says. "We had a real problem to get on with. We had no time to practise. No one gave us a set of rules to start with and a whole load of train set to play with. I didnt have an office – they gave us a car-park, a mobile phone, a copy of the Yellow Pages and the back of a fag packet.
"We had no logistics when we started and the bloody war was at its height."
And though Army personnel are revered for their calm, logistical efficiency, it seems – perhaps a little surprisingly – that this is a man who was deeply affected by this experience.
He recalls how, after witnessing the scenes at Great Orton, he drove back into the Lune Valley and saw sheep – so many sheep. "That did – and still does – come back to me. Not in a nightmarish sort of way, but your mind does go back to the slaughtering. Just the bloody waste of it, the clinical efficiency. Im not saying that it wasnt necessary. But the waste that they werent going into the food chain. They were just going into mass graves.
"I dont think anyone who went there didnt find it emotionally draining."
So was it stressful? "It wasnt stressful – stress is where your instincts are in conflict with your duty – and my instinct was to get the bloody problem sorted as humanely as possible and as quickly as was safe for people. It was my duty as well, so I didnt find it stressful. It was a bit bloody tiring at times."
Brigadier Birtwistle will be spending 100 days a year in this office as campaign director of the Rural Heritage Trust, a non-profit-making charity that conserves the countrysides built and natural heritage.
It does this partly by acquiring at-risk rural buildings, arranging and funding planning permission for their sympathetic conversion, then selling them on a 999-year lease containing conservation clauses. It is an idea imported from urban areas, modelled on the scheme used by the Duke of Westminster Estates in London.
The target is to raise £500,000 to hire three full-time staff and, longer-term, spread its coverage beyond Cumbria and the Dales and broaden its remit to include the natural as well as built heritage.
"It has to be done now," he says. "It has to be done while there is a public awareness of the needs of the countryside."
The Trust feels its work is more vital now than ever, with BSE, swine fever and foot-and-mouth all having accelerated "inevitable" changes to British farming. "Im very conscious – and have been for a number of years – of the economic vagaries of small farming and I suppose that through the foot-and-mouth crisis, living so closely and intimately with it, long hours every day for five weeks, you saw the suffering and you saw the need for change."
Brigadier Birtwistle originally intended to "drop out for a year" after he retired and perhaps go round the world, but when he was approached by the Trust, he felt it was an opportunity he couldnt let pass.
It would be a chance to work on issues about which he feels passionately. It was near home, too – and the north-west is very much home to the Birtwistles, who have been here – many of them as small farmers – since 1200. Born in Accrington and educated at the Royal Grammar School in Lancaster, the Brigadier now lives in the "beautiful" Lune Valley.
He may be out of the Army but the Army, you cant help feeling, isnt quite out of him. He refers at one point to livestock "corpses", then corrects himself: "carcasses". He uses the expression 1500 hours, rather than 3 oclock. He even once, instead of saying yes, uses the term "Roger".
But hes moved on, he insists. "No, I dont think Ill miss it at all. The Army is really an act of parliament which is passed every year. What you potentially miss are your colleagues – and you keep in touch with them anyway."
Although his father was in the Services, Brigadier Birtwistle says joining the Army was originally only a means of paying his way through his English degree (his older brother and younger sister also went to Cambridge). "I never really intended to stay so long," he says. "I just drifted along."
Look at his Army CV, though, and its obvious he did anything but just drift along. His 34-year career saw him serve in, among other places, Northern Ireland, Germany and Africa. He was awarded the OBE in 1992 in recognition of the performance of 1st Battalion, the Queens Lancashire Regiment, of which he was commander.
Not, in other words, someone youd want to get on the wrong side of. Hes an imposing figure. Not that, sitting here in his cords and open-neck sweater, he seems particularly frightening – or, indeed, even ruthless. Just that he could, you cant help thinking, be both those things.
He says his love of the countryside began as a form of escapism in childhood from a "loving but fairly firm" upbringing. He remembers, fondly, helping out on farms as a boy. "It was an ideal life – it was really what I wanted to do."
And now hes certainly looking forward to spending more time in the countryside. Walking freely, when F&M restrictions end, with his two Labradors. Doing some fly-fishing, some rough shooting. (He classes himself, incidentally, as an "average" shot). "I keep saying that Im going to get a motorcycle licence but havent got round to it."
Work-wise, theres some consultancy and a couple of non-executive directorships on the horizon. Some lecturing and after-dinner speaking. "Im hugely enjoying my new life."
And, of course, hes looking forward to spending more time with his wife, Ann, who he married when he was 37, and their two daughters: Harriet, 12, and Sophie, 10.
At home, the family have 19 Muscovy ducklings and two Muscovy ducks – "an impulse purchase by my wife and children" – and theres talk of getting a llama. "The children love them," he says. The Brigadier, however, is not so sure. "Theyre hugely expensive. There are easier and cheaper ways to keep the grass down.
"Were drawn to water," he adds, looking out of his new office window, across More-cambe Bay, lighting another cigarette and talking excitedly about how, when the tide goes out, the river still runs and you can catch fish with your feet.
"When I came up here five years ago looking for a house, I said to my children: I used to catch fish here with my feet when I was your age. I took them and they loved it."
Then hes talking again about the task ahead here. It is fitting, when you remember what the Rural Heritage Trust does, that his office is in a building that dates back to the early 17th century. The room in which we are sitting was once a hayloft, the shippen beneath.
"This is a challenge here. It looks like a sleepy hollow, but there is a big job to be done. Very shortly were going to launch ourselves into an expansion programme for this charity and I dont intend to fail."
And this is one man who, when he tells you that, you have every reason to believe.