Twenty years on from FMD 2001 - Robin Spence remembers

When I was asked to write about my experience of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD), I thought it was impossible to describe the scale and horror of the disaster that overtook our lives 20 years ago writes Robin Spence, Roberthill, Lockerbie – one of the first Scottish cases in the devastating 2001 outbreak and a stalwart in representing the interests of farmers affected on behalf of NFU Scotland.

I remember watching the scenes of the funeral pyres at Heddon-on-the-Wall on television in disbelief. Unable to imagine that in the 20th century we could be so affected by a disease that should have been consigned to the history books. It was real, and within a few days I realised it was very close to home.

At that time, as a side-line, I was representing NFU Scotland alongside national and regional partners, trying to implement a robust and proactive response to the disease. Little did I know that I would later return to this role full-time.

In the cruellest twist of fate imaginable, infected sheep from next to the source had been sent to Hexham Mart, then onto Longtown, and then on again to some 50 locations across the UK.  By the time the authorities realised, the disease was dispersed far and wide.  

On 1 March 2001, Scotland’s first case was confirmed.  The disease was less than 1 mile away from Roberthill.  It was like a punch to the stomach that it was no longer ‘if’ but ‘when’ we would get it. We continued to disinfect everything, restricted our movements, and hoped and prayed that we would be spared.  

Unfortunately, on 19 March 2001 our worst nightmare came true.  Our beef cattle showed clinical signs - lesions on their tongues.  This was quickly confirmed by a Ministry Vet.  Amid all the emotions of shock, anger, and disbelief over what was happening we had to plan - and quick.  The next few hours were a blur of planning and preparing for the slaughter of 621 cattle (beef and dairy) and 686 adult sheep, along with hundreds of very young lambs.  

The beef cattle were visibly distressed, walking as if on hot coals.  So, it quickly became a matter of relieving their pain and suffering - the only humane thing to do.  What was much more difficult to bear was the slaughter of our pedigree Holstein herd who were not showing obvious distress.  The loss of generations of breeding rebuilt after the 1952 FMD outbreak to be destroyed. This, together with hundreds and hundreds of innocent sheep and lambs, brought me to my lowest and darkest point.

At the same time a rage descended on me against those whose negligence had allowed this awful disease into our herds and flocks.  

I do not feel we would benefit from reliving the details of what then took place, but I would like to reiterate my heartfelt gratitude to all those people who stepped into our lives at that point and treated our animals and ourselves with compassion. From being confirmed to the lighting of the pyres took 48 hours.  A bustling farmyard changed in two days to a silent empty vacuum.  

The horrible smoke from Roberthill pyre mixed with our neighbours in the Annan valley, and a thick suffocating blanket could be seen from miles away. The pyres smouldered for over two weeks, alongside the start of a deep farm clean. 

This terrible experience galvanised my resolve to beat the disease, so I returned to my NFUS role.  Licenced off farm and based in Dumfries, I worked closely with a wide range of talented individuals from the state veterinary service, SEERAD and the Army, as well as those in the Emergency Planning bunker.  

We, together with the wider farming and rural community, gradually took back control of the disease. This was done over many months of strong partnership working, focused intent, and countless personal and financial sacrifices to protect the rest of Scotland.  To this end we were successful, but the cost was immeasurable and will live forever with us. Once the disease was in retreat, I joined the Farm Business Support Group which provided help and guidance to those in agriculture who wanted to take forward their business post-FMD.

I believe our duty, on this 20th anniversary of FMD, is to make sure our political leaders do not forget the importance of protecting our borders, our priceless national resources, and our communities.  The parallels with the Covid-19 pandemic are frighteningly similar. I believe quicker action in shutting our borders and limiting movement earlier would have saved so many lives both in 2001 and 2020.

Picture courtesy of Macduff. 


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