Why millions of animals were killed to stop foot and mouth disease in 2001

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No cycling sign during foot and mouth crisis 2001, 2000. (Photo by National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
The outbreak led to large areas being closed off, and was devastating to tourism in areas such as the Lake District (Photo by National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

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When highly infectious foot-and-mouth disease was found in pigs and an Essex abbatoir in February 2001, it sparked a crisis which led to millions of animals being killed and burned.

The outbreak - which delayed the General Election and led to rights of way being closed across Britain to contain the disease - was the worst agricultural crisis in decades.

Government contingency plans were based on an outbreak at 10 farms - but when samples were found in 27 pigs at Cheale Meats abattoir, the highly contagious and deadly disease had already spread to more than 50 farms.

Millions of healthy animals were slaughtered in an effort to contain the illness, and tourism in areas such as the Lake District was devastated as footpaths were closed off.

The outbreak, which was declared over on this day in 2002, was the world’s single biggest foot-and-mouth epidemic, and the largest animal disease epidemic in Britain in modern times.

(Eingeschränkte Rechte für bestimmte redaktionelle Kunden in Deutschland. Limited rights for specific editorial clients in Germany.)   FOOT AND MOUTH, UK. SE England, Essex. Bulldozers lifting corpses of Foot and Mouth disease infected cows, slaughtered at a farm in Essex. March 2001. CDREF00142   (Photo by Julio Etchart/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Bulldozers lift bodies of infected cows (Photo by Julio Etchart/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Vets travelled to farms in infected areas, testing animals for the disease, and culling entire herds where infected: in total six million animals were slaughtered, according to official records.

Some have suggested that the true total could be far higher - up to 10 million.

Pigs on quarantined land at Farringford Farm at Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight where Ministry of Agriculture officials are investigating the possibility of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease.   * Pigs from Farringford Farm and another in Berkshire had been supplied to an abattoir in Essex where the viral disease was discovered.   (Photo by Chris Ison - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)
Pigs on quarantined land at Farringford Farm at Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight (Photo by Chris Ison - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)

Christine Middlemiss, now Britain’s Chief Veterinary Officer, was a newly qualified vet at the time.

She told the Observer last year, ‘I volunteered as a temporary veterinary inspector at 4pm and was told to report to a farm in Cumbria by 8am the next day.

‘’What I vividly recall is the support we got from the farmers at the time, despite the terrible news we often had to give them.

‘I would be supervising the culling of a herd, their livelihood, and yet they kept coming over to ask me if I was all right, had I eaten and would I like a sandwich. That was in the middle of what was a real heartache for them. It was remarkable.”

But many farmers were left in despair after their animals were killed.

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Farmer Alwyn Tait said at the time, 'It just makes me feel angry. The Government doesn't care at all about farmers. They think we haven't got a future on the land. We are all going to end up being park-keepers. There won't be any animals left,'

The last cases out of the 2,030 detected in the country were found on September 30.

A cordon of tape crosses the drive way to Orchard Farm in West Horndon, Essex, as Government inspectors examine the farm for foot-and-mouth disease. Farmers were being warned to check their animals after an outbreak of the disease among pigs.  * ...was confirmed. Five-mile animal exclusion zones were in place around an abattoir and farm, both south of Brentwood, Essex, after the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was informed. Foot-and-mouth is a highly infectious viral disease which can affect cattle, pigs, sheep and goats characterised by the development of blisters in the mouth causing increased salivation and lameness.   (Photo by John Stillwell - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)
A cordon of tape crosses the drive way to Orchard Farm in West Horndon, Essex, as Government inspectors examine the farm for foot-and-mouth disease (Photo by John Stillwell - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)

When Northumberland - the last remaining area with foot-and-mouth - was declared free of the disease, it marked the end of the outbreak, according to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Ben Gill, then president of the National Farmers Union said that the removal of the ‘at risk’ status would ‘remove a long, dark shadow from the countryside.’

An outbreak of foot and mouth disease was confirmed at Hampstead Farm, near Yarmouth, Isle of Wight, where police gaurd routes leading to the farm, where 166 dairy cows have been slaughtered. The farmer and his family cannot leave the farm for three weeks.  * All visitors must disinfect their footwear. 21/2/2001: Farmers were Wednesday February 21 2001, being warned to check their animals after an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease among pigs was confirmed.  Five-mile animal exclusion zones were in place around an abattoir and farm, both south of Brentwood, Essex, after the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was informed. Foot-and-mouth is a highly infectious viral disease which can affect cattle, pigs, sheep and goats characterised by the development of blisters in the mouth causing increased salivation and lameness.   (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)
An outbreak of foot and mouth disease was confirmed at Hampstead Farm, near Yarmouth, Isle of Wight, where police gaurd routes leading to the farm, where 166 dairy cows have been slaughtered (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)

He said, ‘This is the news that farmers across the UK have been waiting for. We all hope that this is truly the beginning of the end of this appalling chapter.'

In the wake of the outbreak, feeding animals with swill - untreated kitchen waste - was banned, and movements of animals were more strictly controlled by law.

When foot-and-mouth came back in 2007, the outbreak was rapidly contained, and only spread to a small number of farms.

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