THE farming community in south Cumbria is this week looking back on two decades since the last case of foot and mouth in the county.

Steve Watson was farming at Newton-in-Furness when the crisis hit.

“I’d been working away for one of the utility firms,” he said.

“We were up in the Lowick area when they had a few outbreaks up there.

“We’d been working on the land a week or so before Lowick was hit with it.

“I came home from work one day and I rung the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) up and I explained the situation.

“The NFU told me to stop at home, they’d be in touch with me by the end of the week.

“They’d made a decision that they wanted to take all my stock out, because if I’d brought it back home, we’d have probably caused all Furness to lose their sheep.”

He said his animals were all shot and taken away by wagons and described the significant mental health toll that it took on him.

“You’ve got breeding families there that you’ve had all your life, families that have come in through your life, and everything was just stopped,” he said.

James Airey, who farms at Little Urswick and is a county advisor for the NFU in Cumbria, said it was a time of great anxiety for the farming community.

ANXIETY: James Airey

ANXIETY: James Airey

“It was just a great big worry,” he said.

“For somebody that’s involved in rearing animals and putting a lifetime into breeding quality stock, it was such a worry that a lifetime’s work could really be lost.

“Nobody wanted to see their animals shot or put down.”

By the time the last case of foot and mouth in Cumbria had been confirmed at Whygill Head Farm near Appleby, millions of animals in the UK had been slaughtered, with pyres of burning carcasses dominating the news coverage.

Barrow and Furness MP Simon Fell said: “I was away at university during foot and mouth. The most striking memory for me was driving back home, turning off the M6 and just seeing empty field after empty field.

“It was a shocking sight. I’ve been in a couple of meetings recently where foot and mouth has been brought up - the coronavirus pandemic has been far more wide-reaching but the impacts of foot and mouth and the plans for recovery are still relevant now.”

Earlier this week, Westmorland and Lonsdale MP Tim Farron tabled an early day motion in Parliament to mark two decades since the end of foot and mouth.

Mr Farron said: “We should never forget the sheer devastation that foot and mouth brought to Cumbria.

“I saw the heartbreak at close quarters; seeing farmers who had worked all their lives having to give up their prized livestock is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

“However, in those dark times, you got to see Cumbria at its best, communities supporting one another.

“It’s that experience of pulling together in hard times that I believe gives us the hope to emerge stronger from the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.”