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UK farmers learn valuable lessons from the past

British farmers are no strangers to having to contain deadly diseases, or maintain good stringent hygiene standards for prolonged periods of time.

While millions of us remain locked down due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic here in the UK, it’s important to remember that this coronavirus is just one of many diseases which can cause great harm, not just to humans but to the millions of animals that also inhabit our country.

English farms are home to a significant amount of livestock – the government estimated that there were 5.2 million cattle and calves, four million pigs and 15 million sheep and lambs being reared, as of June 2020. All kinds of diseases, if left unchecked, can run rampant through our farms, so farmers know only too well the consequences of failing to implement the necessary plans to halt the spread of them.

Remembering foot and mouth

Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) is a highly contagious viral infection which is typically transmitted between animals with cloven hoofs or feet. Animals such as cattle, sheep and pigs which are infected by FMD start to experience fevers and low milk production before they are afflicted by painful blisters or lesions which can appear in and around their mouths, as well as on their feet.

Infected animals living in close quarters can suffer from further infection, as the lesions eventually rupture, allowing damaged body tissues to get infected by other pathogens, simply causing more pain and suffering for them. The UK experienced two major outbreaks of FMD over the last century – a major outbreak in 1967, followed by another in February 2001. A more recent outbreak occurred in 2007, but was contained much sooner.

In the 2001 outbreak, UK farmers were forced to slaughter over six million cows and sheep. One of the abiding images of the outbreak was the photographs of piles dead livestock being incinerated in fields, a modern-day plague which caused immense damage to our farms.

Pandemics and epidemics can be a costly shock to any society, as we have seen with COVID-19, with the government borrowing billions of pounds to keep the country moving, despite restrictions. The 2001 FMD outbreak was no different – a report published in 2002 estimated that the government was required to pay out £1.1 billion to farmers for having to slaughter livestock for disease prevention purposes, and an additional £200 million to those who had to slaughter their livestock for welfare reasons.

What did we learn in 2001?

The spread of deadly diseases such as FMD requires extensive public awareness campaigns, much as we’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Department of Agricultural, Environment and Rural Affairs has published resources which identify symptoms to watch out for among livestock, as well as clear information about how to prevent contamination – washing boots, wearing protective clothing if necessary, and cleaning vehicles. This is because FMD can be spread through contaminated soil, conveyed from one site of infection to a place which can also become contaminated in time.

Handwashing is another clear way of halting the spread of FMD, as with COVID-19. Using soap or alcoholic gel and scrubbing for at least 20 seconds ensures that the chemicals pull viral particles apart, rendering them unable to latch onto healthy cells and infect any more organisms. Non-essential visits are also advised against – something we’re all used to, as lockdown restrictions remain in place.

Viruses such as COVID-19 and FMD prey on our nature as sociable animals, in order to be conveyed from place to place, in a bid to find new hosts. When we think of the environmental impact of farming, it’s important to remember the impact the microscopic world can have on our own world. Viruses which cause diseases such as FMD are easily-transmissable, deadly to a variety of animals in both farms and the wild, and not all of them can be treated with vaccines.

As a result, without the knowledge and the hygiene standards put into practice immediately, we could risk allowing irreversible damage to be done to our biome and beyond. By learning from the outbreaks in recent history, we can avoid repeating mistakes of the past, and strive for a healthier, safer future.

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