'Foot 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 and consequences.

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 Shropshire.

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.