Childhood memories of 2001 foot and mouth crisis

By Louise Walter
BBC Spotlight


As the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001 laid waste to farming in Devon and Cornwall, the younger children and teenagers in those communities were not immune to the chaos around them.

Some school pupils had to miss large chunks of their education, unable to leave their farms for fear Foot and Mouth to the childof spreading the disease.

In one Devon village, children had to share their primary school with an air monitoring station, in case the smoke from the nearby pyre was blown their way.

In another, the school held a letter writing project to keep in contact with their friends stuck at home.

On Emmett Farm in Umberleigh, siblings Leigh and Suzanne Warne knew exactly what was going on.

Aged 14 and 12 respectively in 2001, they feared not only for the future of their farm, but their own tame animals that they had raised themselves.

"You would come home from school, and go straight to Ceefax," said Leigh.

"They were updating the list of farms so you could see it coming towards you and that caused the most worry."

Both brother and sister became vigilant, closely watching the farm's stock for any signs of the disease.

False alarm

They remember deciding to be on their best behaviour as their parents tried to get through while all around them livestock in the county were being heavily culled.

"There was enough worry without larking around," Leigh recalls.

And then they had the scare - a sheep was found foaming at the mouth.

"You could see the fear in mum and dad," said Suzanne. "They were so quiet."

It was a false alarm, but the threat of the disease remained all around them and the smell of death was in the air.

"It was the smell [of the pyres], you couldn't get away from it," Suzanne remembers.

Emmett Farm got through the outbreak without losing an animal.

Ange Chudley's family were not so lucky. She was 19 in 2001, and had been helping her uncle when she returned home to find the men from MAFF (now known as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) already in action.

"I couldn't get my head round it. I went in to mum and dad and they said, 'well, we've got to help them' so I pulled on my wellies and starting catching sheep for them to kill."

The farm was lambing at the time; the newborns had to go straight to slaughter.

"I was devastated" she says. And she still is, although she keeps a brave face on it, holding back the tears.

Image caption,
Slaughtered cattle filled the yard waiting to be taken to the pyre

More than 3,000 animals were culled on her farm but none were infected.

"It was like a black hole and you know you shouldn't torture yourself, but that's very difficult when you're in at night and you're tired. Every time you shut your eyes you just see dead animals, it wasn't easy."

If there was an image that came to symbolise the contiguous cull that took Ange's livestock it was Phoenix the calf and the Board family.

Pure white and newborn, Phoenix had apparently survived slaughter by MAFF.

She had spent days next to her mum's rotting carcass before the Boards found her and kept her in their garage.

Blue Peter

When the media heard of this miracle survival, there was a scrum of photographers and television crews at their farm near Axminster.

Ross Board was at the time a photogenic 11-year-old who found himself at the centre of attention along with his new pet.

"I had Sky News, Nickelodeon, I dealt with Blue Peter and the BBC and the national newspapers," Ross remembers.

The coverage went global - the family had messages of support and gifts from across the globe - which Ross said helped the family's morale.

He says it was a life changing experience.

"Not in a farming way, but being surrounded by so much death and then so much media attention, it was a bizarre mix."

For Ross, it backed up his decision to leave farming. The media attention has instead drawn him to a career along media and technological lines, and he is currently studying architecture at the University of Bournemouth.

But Leigh and Ange have both stuck to farming.

For Ange, despite losing all their stock, farming was too much in the blood.

"I couldn't be anything else," she said. For Leigh, a life on the land is his career path and the foot and mouth outbreak actually strengthened that.

"I think getting through it, and still having all your stock… I think it would have been a shame and almost a mickey-take to other farmers who had lost their stock, to have turned around and given it up."

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