– from Annie Mawson, Cumbria Woman of the Year 2000
I write at the request of many dear friends throughout Cumbria and, especially the Valley of Eden who have helped my charity, Sunbeams Music Trust over the last 8 years, never-failing and always supportive to my people with Special Needs. And now they have very special needs of their own, and they need OUR help and support, as, one by one, the small rural hamlets of North Cumbria are wiped out.
I write this as a Cumbrian farmer’s daughter, with an aching heart for all my farming friends, and for my cousins and my own dear brother and old friends in West Cumberland, who are living with the Sword of Damocles as the FAM insiduously gets nearer to their farms.
And I write this, as a resident of TIRRIL ,who has lived behind closed curtains which mask the biggest individual fire in the country, still burning after 27 days: nobody could have prepared us for the smell, for the stench of death invading every room , through the ancient cracks, under the doors, down the chimney, as we checked the wind direction , hoping for a reprieve, albeit for a few hours.
But our discomfort was nothing compared to the inexorable heartache behind the lists of affected farms read out by Radio Cumbria. But herein lies my incredulity, as I naively presumed everything really was under control (long before Nick Brown uttered those immortal words which will no doubt come to haunt him.) It did strike us in Tirril that the animals awaited slaughter a long time, that the fire took a long time to prepare – 8 days, that the carcasses lay a very long time – and, we never dreamt then that the fire would burn for 27days.
We all thought this would be an exceptional case. But no, horrifyingly, this first outbreak has been the rule rather than the exception. We didn’t dare ask, what’s to stop this tragedy happening again? One presumes that “they” are, really are investigating the causes, so that this disaster will never happen again. It seemed obvious to us in Tirril that infected pig swill and imported meat from countries where Foot and mouth is endemic, were to blame .
By now, there is well documented evidence of the slowness in reaction by the government, and their failure to bring the spread of the disease under control. BUT – my point is that we in Tirril were talking of these factors FOUR WHOLE WEEKS AGO.I was naive to believe that the Government would have the answers.But the government strategy seems to have been in disarray since the discovery of the epidemic, impeded by bureaucratic centralism and a reluctance to use all available help from the onset. It is heartbreaking that the discussions about the disease which now prevail in the media were the ordinary topics of conversation in our little village where the greatest number of animals were cremated in the whole country.
Now, in the fifth week, they are chasing the disease, instead of containing it.
Where is evidence that “they” have learnt from the 1967 outbreak and the resultant Northumberland Report? Why was the initial reaction from the Essex outbreak so complacent? Why was movement of livestock not prohibited immediately? Why didn’t the Government take the situation sufficiently seriously at the beginning? (indeed, during the second week, the Cumbrian situation scarcely made national headlines on television). Why is it a case of always seeming to be “locking the door after the horse has bolted”. Why do “they” seem to be always caught on the hop? Why is there no proper Government strategy? Why do the different helplines give different information? Why are we still crying out for a reduction of time between detection, slaughter, and burning/rendering? The television reports speak daily of the shortage of vets, slaughtermen, valuers – I believe there is a shortage of veterinary surgeons trained in the country, due to reduction in successive government funding for veterinary education (Liverpool University). Why? Why, in our naivity have we considered strategies 4 weeks ago, which are only now being implemented. We presumed that it was so obvious that the army had to be utilised, and waited to see them in Tirril………. and waited……and waited.

  • VACCINATION :Confusion over its use helps to feed our feelings of frustration and despair: misunderstandings over its efficacy or does it “mask” the disease, and thus make diagnosis difficult?
    Who do we believe? As I write, we await the decision, but every 24 hours condemns another 20+ farms plus the ones in the 3km zone. And what gives us the faith that the practice of vaccination will be carried out efficiently and to the farms in crisis, when some farms within the 3 km zone still haven’t received any confirmation from MAFF anyway that they are in a restricted area? And when my friends in Sockbridge were told that their sheep will be slaughtered ‘tomorrow’, when in fact they were cremated 3 weeks ago? Why should we have faith in MAFF any more when the goalposts keep changing?

  • Emotions run high at rumours of sheepdogs killed; and was it rats in their thousands that are spreading the disease? Who do we believe? There is mud running alongside my house for twenty feet and within 6 inches of my steps, from the wagon wheels carrying diseased animals to be rendered. Is it infectious? Yes, says Chief Vet.Officer Jim Scudamore: No, say MAFF.

  • DISINFECTED MATS: In Tirril, from March Ist onwards, we awaited their appearance on the roads… and we waited,…. and waited. On ringing the Cumbria County Council Helpline, I was told, that “ it is not policy to place disinfected mats in areas already affected”. WHYEVER NOT? I would have thought those were the very areas. where they might have prevented the spreading of the disease, however minimal the help.Only now, thanks to Margeret Lee of Tirril has a mat been put down.

  • CLOSURE OF ROADS. The side roads in Tirril could easily have been closed with only a very small inconvenience to several houses. But no, this also needed Government legislation. WHY? Could emergency legislation not have been brought in? Compare the efficiency of France. ANOTHER POINT DISMISSED BY THE CCC. HELPLINE – ONLY ADDS TO OUR SENSE OF IMPOTENCE AND POWERLESSNESS.

  • FUNERAL PYRES:Do the fumes from the pyres carry the infection? Do small amounts of virus particles escape? Is there a risk? And if there is even a very minimal risk, then surely it is a risk too great. And if the Northumberland Report concluded that burial rather than burning of animals should be carried out, why wasn’t this adhered to? Is there identifiable danger from burning carcasses? Does anyone REALLY know? Why do we instinctively check the prevailing winds when we get up, and hope that for one day we may be released from the gloom and the stench of death and decay…….. was this what it was like in the middle ages with the relentless onslaught of the plague? …… this living on a knife edge, living to the relentless sound of the JCBs And did the ghouls really have to bring their picnics and watch the fire be constructed and then lit? And why did people still walk their dogs within 10 yards of the infected farm?

  • More sinister – why was the timber availability checked BEFORE the outbreak was first announced? – as confirmed by Baroness Hayman on BBC’s Question Time, as being part of an ongoing EEC directive – and yet the first time in 34 years by the timber merchant when asked.

Why don’t the government have the answers? Why don’t they have effective contingency plans? What use the spin-doctors now? Do they understand the countryside? Do our urban neighbours care? But then, as Tony Blair is continually telling us, “Let’s get this in perspective – we are only talking of less than 1% of the country’s livestock”. How many of our heartbroken farmers are dismissed so arrogantly in that one sentence? Don’t they care that the whole traditional way of life on the fellsides is under threat? We naively forecast three weeks ago, the effects of FAM on the heafed sheep; the lack of a clear policy for saving pedigree, rare breeds, and important breeds for the national flock; the disastrous effect on the whole rural infra-structure and tourist industry. Do these issues not bother them? My admiration and respect for a farmer’s wife normally so quietly spoken, who defied bureacracy, and wouldn’t be fobbed off until she had told Nick Brown’s secretary, that “he has written off the Lake District”.
Many farming friends have given up ringing MAFF. Total despair at their incompetence at coping with the inexorable spread of the disease, and at the lack of information. I have heard some wonderful reports of individual officials, , but equally, there has been confusion and despair and distress by the MAFF paralysis in general. Farming friends ring at their wits end, no idea whether their animals are to be killed or spared; where the 3 kilometre boundary runs from – the farmstead or the nearest field to the outbreak? The arrogant assumption that all farmers have computers, let alone access to websites. Never will I forget that fateful afternoon when my brother phoned me and told me of the 3km cull, and the awful repercussions that entailed for so many of our friends. Kitchen tables were taken over by O.S. maps and compasses as we all tried to work out the boundaries and which farms would now be condemned by each new outbreak.
Thank goodness for Jon Snow of Channel 4 who seems determined to keep us on the National screens. And thankgoodness for the outstanding service provided by Radio Cumbria, and for the compassion yet pragmatism of ALL the presenters. And not forgetting Fiona Armstrong’s tenacity and persistence in her interview with Nick-don’t -shout-at-me-Brown, when he did his U turn on the culled animals.(I wonder how many farmers collapsed with shock in those 3 awful hours)
As I write, my phone has been ringing from friends in Lazonby, Great Salkeld, Little Salkeld, who talk of their pain and distress for the the children in particular who still look out onto 100s of animals lying in the gutters, in the farmyards, in the fields., – some after EIGHT DAYS , despite Tony Blair’s assurances. Messages come from friends who are quiet gentle people, full of kindness and concern for their well-loved animals, and who are now taking on the Ministry, even Nick Brown’s office, their M.P.s to tell them what it is really like, living on this knife edge, watching the goalposts change with stunned powerlessness; watching the relentless ravaging of the disease across our beautiful Valley of Eden, whilst the Government has dithered for 4 weeks; watching their beloved flocks putrify as they themselves douse their dead animals in daily disinfectant, whilst a MAFF person stands guard at their yard.
……………….“BUT FARMERS AREN’T IN QUARANTINE”………. says Margaret Beckett, Leader of the House of Commons. Has she not heard of all the split families up here in the Eden Valley, in North Cumbria? of the children not living at home, so that they can still study for their A levels, and not allowed back on the farms, in case they spread infection?
One friend wrote, “A cruelty of this disease is that we cannot go and put our arms around those who are so heart-broken.” Is it true that human contact can spread disease for up to 5 days? How long have I to wait until I resume my workshops with my Sunbeams people, making sure none of them live on farms. When can I see my own family, and know that it will be safe to go over to my brother’s farm in Copeland? MAFF tell me I must wait 5 days after the last outbreak. I am prepared to do this, but is this a figure plucked from a report? Why are we becoming so cynical?
Another phone call from a dear farming friend in Great Orton, hanging in there, despairing like me, that the lambs were separated from their mothers on their last journey to their mass grave. Why? What sort of a decision was that, and for what reason? I can’t believe this is real. At least she said the Major himself ,is ringing her about her concerns over the incessant transport through the village, and her fears of the disease spreading.
Every farming household has a story to tell. Many of them are distressing beyond words. But out of all this farming holocaust in our beleagured county, there has to be a ‘reckoning-up’time: there has to be something positive. The Government has got to address the reasons why this tragedy happened. We have got to bombard MAFF ., the NFU, the CCC, the MP’s with our opinions, and we have got to believe that this time, they will be listened to. The issues which I believe need addressing, are now part of normal telephone conversation:

  • the 412% markup by the Big 4 supermarkets.
  • the differentiation between farmers and dealers.
  • the need to think small and local.
  • the return of the local abbatoirs and local meat outlets so that Cumbrians can have the assurity of eating Cumbrian meat.
  • Why is the illegal meat trade so difficult to police? Why is it such a low priority when the effects are so devastating?
  • And uppermost, that the sources of infection of FAM should be eradicated from our country, so that this tragedy will never be repeated.

I haven’t the scientific expertise to discuss the disease with authority, but my telephone has been red-hot for the last four weeks, and what I DO know is, that it is the women of the communities who will get their men-folk through this tragedy. Several vicar friends have all spoken of their farmers being crushed, disempowered and heartbroken, and it is their women who will give them back their dignity, and self-worth and confidence. It is our lovely fellside women who will be strong, and farming folk reading this will understand what I am saying, and know that it is nothing to do with feminism.
I have great faith in the human spirit, and know that it abounds in our beautiful County. I have sung in almost every Village Hall/Church/W.I now affected by the tragedy. I have met hundreds of the lovely folk who are now suffering, and as a farmers daughter, with a dear farming brother and farming cousins in West Cumberland, my heart goes out to them all. I have written to many,- and know that underneath the stoicism and bravery, there are some very despairing and frightened farmers. One friend summed it up, saying “It is like living on a time-bomb, as this awful infection creeps nearer.”
I would like to share this message which someone sent me at the beginning of this nightmare. I hope it will give heart to those who are feeling they can hardly cope.
“We are hard-pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned;struck down, but not destroyed.”
2.Corinthians 4 v.8.
In my recitals, my favourite song is “Ca’ the Ewes”. It will never be more poignant, as we look out on our bare fields and fells. God alone knows when I will have the strength to sing it again. I have always compared the herdwick sheep to men like my dear Dad, who once farmed the Wasdale fells : just like them he was wise and hardy, strong and sensitive, gruff and gentle., and for the first time in 10 years, I am glad he is not alive to witness this hell on earth.
3rd April 2001.
Some thoughts by Annie Mawson.
Cumbrian Woman of the Year 2000.
The Old Post Office,
CA10 2JE

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