'Watching my sheep burn was just devastating'

Thursday, 1 March, 2001, 16:02 GMT


Tom Griffith

Tom Griffith: "It was terrible"

Foot-and-mouth disease has spread across the UK wreaking havoc and leaving hardship in its wake.

Here, Northamptonshire farmer Tom Griffith, 36, tells how he discovered the outbreak on his farm and how, on Wednesday, he and his brother were forced to slaughter their livestock.

"The men from the ministry came on Monday morning. We went through every sheep that was on our holding, which was 550. They checked the mouths and feet and out of all of them we found three with symptoms.

"They took scrapings of the gums and sent them to London. Within 24 hours they came back that it was positive and they put a 'Form A' on us, which meant that everything had to be destroyed.

"We first heard about the outbreak at Cheale Meats in Essex on Tuesday [22 February] but the Government didn't make any dramatic moves to block the movement of livestock.

"So we went to market in Northampton on Thursday and bought 31 sheep, 14 of which were from Willy Cleave in Devon.

"They went into our shed [at Blunts farm, Wootton] and straight to slaughter on Friday morning. It couldn't have been more than 12 hours that they were here.

Official check

"Then the men from Maff [the agriculture ministry] contacted us and said: 'You've purchased sheep from Mr Cleave whose got foot-and-mouth. We'd like to come and check your holding.'

"I can't remember the '67 outbreak and we didn't realise how contagious or how bad this foot-and-mouth could be and I don't think the general public or anybody knew how quickly it could spread.

Fire at Blunts farm

550 sheep were incinerated at Blunts farm

"It was a terrible shock when we got the news that the whole flock would have to be destroyed. You don't think it's going to happen to you. We were in disbelief.

"We shot all 550 sheep yesterday afternoon. Two slaughter men came in and shot them. It was just unbearable to see healthy animals being shot.

"We had to help in getting them in the pens and just making sure that they didn't jump on top of each other. It was terrible.

"They found an area of land on the farm where we could set a fire and set to work. We started to build the fire at 5 o'clock in the afternoon and eventually got it going at 2.30 this morning.

Setting the fire

"We put railway sleepers down and some timber on top of the sleepers. Then we put straw on top of the timber and then coal on top of the straw. Then more straw, more wood and more coal.

"That gave it a good base so when the fire did light the coal would heat up and get it as hot as possible to get rid of the carcasses.

Man from the ministry

Officials monitor the situation closely

"When the sheep had been shot and the fire was built we had to put [the sheep] into a dumper truck and they bought them to the fire.

"Then we had to take them off the truck and handle every sheep on to the fire and lay them out so that they could burn easily and evenly. It was devastating to see the whole lot go up in flames.

"I got three hours sleep last night and I was back here this morning at 8 o'clock to make sure everything was going right. The fire will probably burn for another two days.

"Now we've got to clean out the [sheep] shed and get it disinfected. As soon as we can get everything done and dusted we can try and get back to normality and the neighbouring farmers can have a bit more piece of mind.

Neighbouring farms

"There's only one neighbouring farmer with livestock - the others are arable. But they're all concerned. Their reaction, at least, has been very, very good. Everybody I've spoken - farmers, friends, colleagues - have just rang up with total support and understanding.

"Maff have been very good as well. They've got limited resources because they're very stretched but they've been very supportive and sympathetic."

"Fortunately we've got our other farms, but this could have devastated my future in one fell swoop. Our three other farms have been checked and given the okay, but we're not in the clear yet. They will come back to run more tests.

"The flock had a market value of about 30,000 but I don't know how much compensation we'll get. It's in the hands of Maff.

"The compensation is one thing, but this farm has to be out of action now for six months. And how long is this [epidemic] going to go on for?

"And once we are trading, whose going to be buying sheep and cattle off us. Certainly the French and the Germans won't be, and that's the majority of the sheep market. The prices will be terrible."