March 10 2006 ~ "If you're a true farmer, not a money farmer, you can't help it. You'll always farm."

10 March 2006


By Ros Wynne-Jones

UP ON the heather fell above their farm, Denise and Henry Blake gaze across the fields to where their cattle were burned, the stinging smoke joining the smoulder of thousands of fires across the country.

"It was four cattle wide, the pyre, and 250 feet long," Henry remembers. "Wood at the bottom, then coal, then cattle - then another layer of coal and sheep at the top." He looks at his hands as they rest on the kitchen table.

"That night, we went and stood up on the hill," his wife Denise continues for him, "and you could see the flames half a mile away. That were our farm on fire - everything we had worked for. Our animals being burned."

"One of the worst days," Henry says. "One of the very worst."

It is five years since signs of foot and mouth were spotted in pigs at an abattoir in Essex. The disease took less than a month to travel the 304 miles to Halfway Well Farm near Penrith in Cumbria, where Henry's family have been farmers for three generations.

Denise and Henry kept a diary for the Daily Mirror telling of the devastation it brought them.

Five years earlier farmers had been dealt their first terrible blow with the ban on British beef exports after the Mad Cow disaster.

Only yesterday was that ban finally lifted, and as we talk the Blakes are finally hoping for a brighter future. But the memory of the bad days remains. "I do get a funny feeling thinking it's March again," Denise says. "It was March 20 2001, the first time we noticed a blister in one of the ewes' mouth. By March 21 we were a dirty farm."

Three days later the Blakes had lost all their 202 cows and the 1,100 sheep they were grazing for other farmers.

Their daughters Emma, now 19, Rachael, 15, and Charlotte, 12, were sent away on government advice, leaving Henry and Denise alone on the farm, listening to the terrible silence.

By the time the outbreak was over almost six million animals had been slaughtered across Britain at an estimated cost to farmers of 900million.

Four years on, a Lancaster University report has found that rural communities are still suffering the psychological effects, with farmers, vets and disposal experts experiencing nightmares, flashbacks and anxiety.

Henry says: "You don't forget what it was like when 50 healthy baby lambs are put to sleep, and four calves and suckling cows. You can never get back the stock you had."

"It was like losing part of the family," Denise adds. "I get more upset now than I used to when our animals go to market. We've one old cow up there. When she goes I'll probably cry my eyes out."

After the Army men had shot their cattle one by one and the vet had lethally injected the younger animals, the Blakes went up to the farm. They stopped by the body of Bullock No 44.

"Remember him, Henry?" Denise says. "We'd fought so hard to keep him alive when he was a calf. Henry went and patted him."

Henry nods, lost for words. "He were a right good one," he says.

Stuart Burgess, chairman of the Countryside Agency, recently revisited Cumbria, which already had deep pockets of deprivation before the crisis.

"A lot has changed," he says. "Almost none of the Cumbrian farmers I met this time any longer drew a sole income from farming. Farmers are having to diversify to stay afloat."

Halfway Well was given permission to restock on December 1 2001, six weeks before Britain was declared free of foot and mouth. However the Blakes were forced to look for other ways to boost their income - they now rent out a small cottage to a local worker.

Meanwhile, 151 of their 333 acres are heather fell, protected for future generations. "It's a Site of Special Scientific Interest up there," Henry says. "Something to do with the butterflies and the birds up there being a bit special."

After the massive clean-up when every inch of the farm was scrubbed and disinfected, Denise and Henry took the girls to Euro Disney on their first holiday in 16 years.

Then it was back to work - and in the years since then costs have shot up.

"The price of diesel has doubled, water rates have doubled, and electric and council tax have gone up," Henry says. "People think farmers are rich, but I wish I could say to people like these companies do: 'I regret to inform you the price of this heifer has gone up due to an increase in production costs.' We're on the open market." The Blakes fear the chaos caused by foot and mouth could be repeated if avian flu reaches British shores or bovine TB becomes more widespread.

"They don't seem to have a clue about what to do about TB - whether to cull badgers or whatever," Henry says. "Why can't they just make a decision and get on with it?"

Denise adds: "When you think what we had to do for foot and mouth... The chaos in Carlisle was appalling.

"Everyone was in confusion. Old people being herded from place to place. Pulling wool off every single fence, only to find out: 'Oh, after tomorrow that's not one of the regulations any more...'"

THE British tourist industry took a 4.25billion body blow, from which it is yet to fully recover.

The Blakes still wish they'd ignored the official advice to send their children away during the crisis. "Sending the girls away made it worse for everyone," says Denise.

Having lived through such a horrific experience, and with the future still uncertain, the Blakes know the meaning of survival.

"Whatever's happened, we've always carried on, and fought back," says Henry."

He looks out across his 333 acres, his cattle jostling one another as they wait for their afternoon feed. "All I know is that I'd farm any piece of land anyone would give me and farm it to the best of my ability," he says.

"It's a vocation," his wife agrees. "If you're a true farmer, not a money farmer, you can't help it. You'll always farm."