and Mouth' in the winter of 1967/68
The winter of 1967-68 was one of the blackest in Cheshire history;
the winter of the worst outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease ever
known in Britain and the gruesome slaughter of livestock became
an everyday occurence. Cheshire was the hardest hit of any county
in the country with the loss of over 90,000 cattle, 16,000 sheep
and 42,000 pigs.
The cost in compensation paid out to farmers in Britain was £26
million, but the National Farmers Union estimated the total loss
at a staggering £150 million. The Cheshire plague officially lasted
for 224 days and it ripped the heart out of the farming community.
No-one involved in the 1967-68 epidemic will ever forget those mounds
of burning carcasses, nor the stench-ridden countryside. Though
Foot and Mouth has been the scourge of the countryside for hundreds
of years, this was, indeed, a plague of unparalleled dimensions
From the first outbreak in Cheshire, on October 25, 1967, until
June 25, 1968, when restrictions were finally lifted, the whole
of country life came to a virtual standstill. Fear took over the
daily lives of the farming community, but few lost that earthy resolve
to get up and struggle on, even in the midst of despair. Cheshire
became the Epidemic Frontline almost from the moment, on October
30, 1967, when Alan Beech noticed a cow standing apart from his
Friesian herd at Stocker Lane Farm, Darnhall near Winsford.
Mr Beech thought it had a chill and sent for the vet. Later that
day he learned the chilling truth... the cow was infected with foot-and-mouth
disease. And so began a grim ritual that was to spread to over 1,000
Cheshire farms over the coming months. Mr Beech prepared straw and
disinfectant and herded his 170 head of cattle into the shippon.
By nightfall 10 infected animals were killed, and the next day the
entire herd was slaughtered, together with 40 pigs. Stocker Lane
Farm was empty for the first time in over 40 years ... wiped out
by foot-and-mouth disease.
From that moment, the epidemic spread like wildfire in Cheshire
and within ten days, 11,000 animals had been destroyed in sixty-three
outbreaks. At one point, towards the end of November, 1967, Cheshire
was recording outbreaks at the rate of one an hour and stock losses
were estimated at over £3 million in little over three weeks of
the first reported incident at Stocker Lane Farm.
Fred Pearl, the then Minister of Agriculture, visited Cheshire at
the end of November, but could offer little comfort to farmers who
were, by now, questioning the sense of such wholesale slaughter
of livestock. Mr Peart steadfastly refused to permit the use of
the homeopathic borax vaccination and in words more akin to Neville
Chamberlain on his return from Munich, the Minister officially stated:
"The morale is good and we are winning the battle."
Farmers in Cheshire were still choking on his words as outbreak
followed outbreak and by Christmas almost 1,000 farrms had lost
their livestock. A report to Parliament in the Spring of 1968, stated
the epidemic bad officially broken out at Bryn Farm near Oswestry
on October 25, 1967 (five days before it reached Cheshire) and a
number of alternatives had been studied as to how the virus reached
The movement of animals and people, carriage by birds and wind,
use of infected materials on the firm, imported meat, and infection
from other sources in the UK were all considered, but the Ministry
of Agricuittire's Chief Veterinary Officer concluded:
(i) I have been unable to discover any possible source of the infection
except Argentine lamb.
(ii) Although there is not conclusive evidence that Argentine lamb
was the source, I am of the opinion that there is sufficient circumstantial
evidence for concluding that this lamb was the cause of the initial
case on Bryn Farm and some of the subsequent cases."
That was the official view, but more than a few farmers were left
to contemplate the coincidence of an escape of virus from an isolation
compound at the Animal Virus Research Institute at Pirbright, in
the early days of Black October, 1967. The Chief Veterinary Officer
reported to Parliament: "Due to a breakdown in the air filter system,
infection escaped from one unit to another, a distance of approximately
30-40 yards. This occurred in cool humid weather with strong southwesterly
winds, so that infection could not have been spread to the north
by this means.
None of the workers from Pirbright went to the Oswestry district
at the material time, nor were any vehicles sent there. This incident
cannot be considered as the origin of the outbreak on Bryn Farm."
Over thirty years on, and when Man has landed on the Moon and moved
light years in terms of technical and scientific advancement, it
is incredible to see on our television screens that the policy of
slaughter and burn still remains as the only response in the UK
to a plague that has blighted the countryside for centuries.
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