At the height of the Foot and Mouth outbreak which had engulfed the North of England and spread into Dumfries and Galloway, we were informed that a neighbour’s farm had been designated a suspected F&M holding. The rules were, that all animals on a suspect farm must be slaughtered and incinerated in situ. Neighbouring farms – contiguous holdings, they were called, were to have their cattle and sheep slaughtered too, as a sort of ‘fire-break’.
This was us, our farm – how could this be? Incomprehension, then shock followed the news. We understood the reason that sheep should be culled; they range widely round a farm and could come in contact through the fence with neighbouring sheep. But our lovely cattle, bred on the farm, housed in three separate buildings, each half a mile from the other and far from the sheep; a perfect quarantine situation; they will be safe? NO! The authorities insisted that as it was designated – one holding – they must all die!
I contacted many officials that afternoon and into the night pleading for some common-sense. The cattle were isolated and free of the disease why should they die? My argument fell on deaf ears.
At six the following morning the white coats arrived to do their grizzly task. My wife Margaret, my two sons, Andrew and Peter and myself might have left them to it, but we could not. We felt we had to ensure that they suffered as little as possible. Margaret insisted we fed the animals as normal, so that they would not be stressed. Andrew supervised the ‘process’ in the cattle-sheds; with tears in his eyes he watched as they shot the 150 cows and their new-born calves. One cow he had helped deliver her calf during the night, only to see that calf shot next morning. He knew this would happen but still had to assist her. Half a mile away Peter wept as he watched as they shot the 600 ewes. I too wept as I watched him cry. I wept again as the ‘white coats’ caught the young lambs and held them for the vet who gave each one of nearly 1000 new-born lambs, a lethal injection and laid their bodies as gently as babies in a huge pile five feet high. The madness of it all!
All the while Margaret watched from a distance, her three men with tears running down their faces, and she too descended into a pit of despair as she viewed the growing piles of dead; she was taken to the house by a good friend, James Robertson; he felt she had seen enough, and indeed she had. With only her black and white spaniel for company, she realised that it was the only living animal left on the farm; but worse was to come! The bodies of all contiguous animals were normally transported by wagon to a huge burial pit near Lockerbie. This was the resting place of all the many thousands of ‘clean’ or non-infected animals. All our cattle were free of disease when examined as they were shot and similarly the sheep — except for one sheep in the last pen! This group had grazed among the blackthorn scrub by the river and one sheep had a few lesions on her gums.
Logically, grazing as they did on land isolated on three sides by the wide River Dee and on the fourth side by the main road; they could not have been infected, but logic had flown out the window with common sense and sanity. Our vet who was supervising, regarded the symptoms as ‘doubtful’ and everything changed. Our ‘clean cull’ became a ‘suspected’ cull and all animals had to be incinerated on farm.
The remainder of that day was characterised by argument. The man in charge insisted that the pyre be in the field in front of our house. I refused to allow it there. The field had tile drains which would allow disease, body fluids and unburnt diesel fuel to pollute the groundwater. The prevailing wind would take the vast pall of smoke into the farmhouse and in any case I felt that the public had seen enough of funeral pyres. I insisted they use a piece of rough ground out of sight of the road and with no tile drains. It was after many hours of argument, they finally conceded.
At dawn two huge diggers proceeded to dig a trench 350 metres long a metre deep and 2 metres wide. This was filled with 280 tons of Colombian coal and enough beautiful planed timber to build several houses; the trench was then covered with railway sleepers and straw bales. The 350 cattle and sixteen hundred sheep were piled on this platform before being drenched with diesel fuel. As darkness fell on that second evening in Hell, the pyre was set alight. Two thousand animals burning, stiff black legs pointing skywards, mechanical digger buckets clanking as they stoked the fires, all silhouetted like primeval dinosaurs against the raging flames and vast palls of smoke. The memory of that horrific sight will never leave me.
I can picture my son, Peter, his arm round his mother’s shoulder as we escaped from hell into the warm embrace of the kitchen.
I wept often that day at the horror of it all and at the stupidity of it all. I wept too on subsequent days, at the ghostly silence, the sight of the fields all round me, devoid of animals for the first time since the great ice retreated; at the odd charred limb being thrown on the embers; at the waste.
I certainly wept three days later when officialdom announced – ‘Scientific Advice’ was that in future only sheep need be slaughtered – if that were done the cattle would be uninfected.
Exactly my argument four days before!
My neighbour’s farm proved free of foot & mouth and our suspect sheep proved negative.
Perhaps the witch trials and persecution of the 16th century were like this, well – meaning people swept along on a tide of fear and panic.
That most traumatic experience and its memories would come flooding back, unbidden, for the next ten years. Like a train coming out of a tunnel, the memory could flare up and leave me sobbing. Fortunately, time heals even raw mental wounds. Two years later we planted an oak tree on the pyre site, protected by a wrought iron railing; on that railing a plaque reads:-
On this site are buried the ashes of 350 cattle and 1600 sheep
Shot on the 23rd April during
The Great Foot and Mouth Plague of 2001
Innocent victims of bureaucratic bungling
This Oak tree was planted by the Nelson Family
In memory of their animals
Andrew read the plaque and commented “You are still hurting! “
I could not trust my voice to reply.
The enforced ‘de-stocking of our land and the standard quarantine period before we could replace the animals, created a surreal period on the farm. The grass still grew and had to be cut, even on fields not cut since the days of horse-drawn reapers. Not always a painless operation on our stony land. Our neighbour and friend Willie Thompson wrote a poem about this difficult period. A verse shows his feelings of that time;
Thankfully behind us all now ‘Annus Horribilis’ All the pain and never-ending fuss
In between the knowes and rain showers
Lie crops o’ roon bales and mangled mowers.
Readers should note that this horrendous outbreak was not the fault of any farmer. A disease which does not exist in Britain could not be caused by the poor pig producer who was made the scapegoat. ‘Word in the trade’ was that the Ministry of Defence was testing germ warfare on the Northumberland Military Range and ‘it got away from them’. Add to that the story of a local timber merchant who had been asked by a government department, to stockpile a large number of sleepers for use in bonfires, several weeks before the first outbreak was confirmed. By all accounts he was warned to keep the information confidential.
Do we trust our politicians to always tell the truth? Certainly not!
After the statutory quarantine period we were able to re-stock the land with a herd of beef cows and we began to re-build our lives. Twenty years later we now have five grandchildren ranging from 17 years old down to the only boy age 7. Their fun and laughter have helped our hearts to heal.
John Nelson. 2021