How two Devon farmers fought foot-and-mouth

Foot and Mouth

It is 10 years since the foot-and-mouth outbreak paralysed Devon's farming industry. More than 3m animals were slaughtered in the county where pyres of burning carcasses became a symbol of the disease. The crisis in 2001 cost about £8bn in compensation to the UK livestock industry.

Philip and Mandy Heard of Meldon Farm near Okehampton lost 4-500 cattle, 1,000 ewes and 1,500 lambs.

Anna and Richard May of Springfield Farm near Barnstaple lost 1,000 sheep.

These are their accounts of the experience and how they came out of it stronger.

Philip Heard Anna May
Philip Heard Anna May

Before the outbreak

"Before foot-and-mouth in 2001 it was something that happened in the 1960s in Yorkshire. Nothing had happened down here.

"It was a disease that had been wiped out if you like.

"It would almost be akin to the Black Death coming back in London. It was something that was not going to happen.

"Then we heard one of our neighbours had gone down.

"It was the middle of April when it hit."

"I was working as a nursing auxiliary on the children's ward of North Devon District Hospital.

"I was working nights and Richard was working during the day.

"Richard had been farming with his family until January when they split the farm up and he was on his own.

"Two months into us striking out on our own and we were hit by one of the biggest crises farming has ever known."


Meldon Farm Springfield Nursery

During the outbreak

Foot and Mouth Foot and Mouth

"It was in different areas, coming close and then going away.

"Then we heard one of our neighbours had gone down.

"Five neighbouring farms were taken out before we got the phone call.

"We'd just lambed the ewes and when you lamb you do everything you can to save every single life.

"You got them over that first crucial week and three weeks later they were all piled up in a heap.

"It was just a waste.

"When we got the Galloway cattle slaughtered they were days or weeks away from calving.

"They were in the yard for 10 days and would swell up. The unborn calf would be forced out of the cow.

"You had to walk past that every day.

"The day after slaughter on a Tuesday it was still, deadly quiet, there were no noises from the animals, no gates banging or nothing."

"I haven't really spoken about it since it happened.

"I find it really difficult. "It was such hard work with the lambing, but knowing that they were all going to be slaughtered was just horrible, collecting them up and knowing their fate.

"There was nothing we could do about it.

"We were helpless. They were culled on the farm and there was a pyre shared with other farmers.

"It was just horrible - like the worst thing ever. "It was so big. I just remember the sheer scale of it.

"It was on one of our top fields so you could see it for miles, just horrendous.

"It went on and on and it was close by.

"Once they set fire to it, it engulfed everywhere around us with the smell.

"It was something that had to happen because it was the easiest way of disposing of them. I still remember that really clearly, the charred remains on the farm."

After the outbreak

Meldon Farm Richard and Anna May

"After foot-and-mouth was the first time I'd had a summer off because I didn't have any livestock to look after.

"In August we were thinking about going on holiday to Guernsey to see some farming friends of ours, but they wouldn't let us in the country because there had been a cull on our farm.

"Foot-and-mouth was like a watershed.

"We've always gone for good quality cattle but we've stepped that up.

"After the cull we didn't stock up to full capacity straight away. We've got a lovely lot of cattle now.

"We've always tried to do it as well as we could.

"Seven years later we won Beef Farmer of the Year award. 2001 was the lowest point but 2008 was incredible.

"It was quite a phenomenal day when we went to London for the award."

"Afterwards we thought we are never going to rely on one thing on the farm.

"We just felt that we needed to do something else for ourselves and from that we decided we would diversify.

"We got a diversification grant from Defra.

"We created 26-place nursery on the side of house and it opened in September 2002.

"We have 70 places now and employ 24 people.

"The farm is a huge part of what we do at the nursery, so the children see the lambing and we have alpacas and goats, rabbits and guinea pigs.

"We're back to 1,000 sheep, what it was before, and lambing time is happening again.

"We don't ever take it for granted. You can't believe that out of something so negative anything good could come of it. But we have come out the other side and we are very fortunate."

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