I write this as a personal account of my experience as a temporary veterinary inspector during the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease crisis.

I left Edinburgh at 7.30 am, on March 20, 2001 with mixed feelings. I was six years out of vet school. I knew I felt a duty to go and help with the unfolding crisis, but I was not sure whether I was emotionally or mentally prepared to go.

As I left the M74 and drove the country road to Dumfries, I first noticed police cones lining every lay-by and as I approached Dumfries, I could smell a faint aroma of smoke and burning.

It was an unusual sensual experience because although I knew what the smell was, my brain could not quite register its significance.

I arrived at Dumfries Animal Health Offices at approximately 9am and was immediately given accommodation and a ‘welcome pack’ containing paperwork and a mobile phone, a Nokia with the infamous ringtone (I still cannot hear that ring tone).

Little was I to know at that point just how much paperwork was to be involved, a form for everything possible that would have to be filled in duplicate or triplicate.

We, the latest recruits, were shepherded into a portable cabin for our introduction to the operation. Another temporary veterinary inspector (VI) introduced himself and explained the process of visits and forms to be served and the procedure to be carried out.

We were then left to assemble a field kit which contained waterproof clothing, Wellington boots, sponge, brush, buckets, gallons of disinfectant, syringes, needles, thermometers, sampling kits, forceps, scalpels, xylazine and pentobarbitone.

Then we had to register for our first visit. I was then introduced to the map of Dumfries and Galloway which was adorned with blue, yellow, and red pins indicating infected premises (IPs), slaughter on suspicion (SOS), and dangerous contacts (DCs).

It was only then that the enormity of the operation began to sink in. Each pin meant hundreds of dead animals, culled for their own welfare, or sacrificed for the protection of others.

They had no choice but a noble sacrifice to take. Along with each pin, you knew there was a farmer and a family who would be scarred, along with his fields where his stock had once grazed.

On patrol visits, I encountered farmers terrified of the sheep which were wintered on their land. Often these belonged to someone else.

On one dairy farm I visited, the cattle were beautiful and well provided for. In one field, there were 114 pregnant Blackface ewes due to lamb the following week.

Their owner had been placed under restriction, as his own farm had been taken as an infected premise. The dairy farmer had no experience of sheep and did not wish to go near them for fear of introducing disease to his herd.

On inspection of the sheep, I found three dead and six recumbent. They were on a stubble maize field with very little nutrition. They were receiving no supplementary feeding and were falling victim to twin lamb disease.

They had no sign of foot-and-mouth but were destined to be exterminated by the cull. I euthanised the recumbent sheep and tried to press the cull team to speed up the process for these animals which were at risk of diseases other than F and M.

Welfare did not seem to be such an important issue as to stamping out the disease.

As a veterinary surgeon I found this frustrating since both should be considered equally. These sheep fell victim to F and M by being in the wrong field at the wrong time when the movement ban came into force.

Had they been fed perhaps all would have been well but at a time when confusion ran the countryside, they became casualties of what was, at the time, a kind of 'war'.

One farmer had a 300-year history of his family farming the premise I visited. He was extremely concerned and emotional. I felt sure that the animals in question, two young calves, had calf diphtheria.

However, I felt it was necessary to ask for a second opinion because I still had not encountered disease and I did not relish the chance of someone in London overruling my tentative diagnosis and demanding slaughter of this man’s dynasty.

Within the hour, a colleague arrived and agreed that the disease in the calves was not foot-and-mouth. Relief could not describe the emotion encountered as I drove away from that farm.

There were many other report cases equally as draining on emotion and happily most were clear of disease.

I remained clean for a period of nine days, quite a record for that stage in the disease advances.

On April 4, I was phoned by another temporary VI and asked if I wanted to do a late report case. The farmer had reported a cow that was slathering (salivating) and was walking as if on hot coals.

This farm was really the only one left standing in an area already decimated by the virus. He had had his sheep slaughtered a week previously as part of the selective cull. I inspected the herd, and all appeared well, before examining the suspected animal.

The suspect animal was a 10-year-old Limousin cow. We watched her walk tentatively into the crush indeed as if she were walking on hot coals, but I could not examine her feet closely due to poor facilities.

With her head held in the restraining bars of the crush I pulled her tongue out of her mouth and saw ulcerated epithelium peeling away. Her temperature was normal. I was in no doubt she had the disease.

I had a decision from London by 8.20 pm that disease was confirmed on clinical and epidemiological grounds, by which time it was dark.

I notified those required in Ayr and organised the valuation for the next morning, as well as notifying the person who would organise everything else.

The farmer and I then went to the confirmed case and euthanised her by torchlight. On post-mortem I took samples and was relieved to see two further ulcers right at the back of the tongue and on collection of my sample the epithelium just lifted away.

The lesions had been described to me by a colleague, as just like a foot blister on one’s own foot. A fluid filled blister, which ruptures leaving loose epithelium and red raw dermis exposed. This is exactly what it was like.

I left the farmer to contemplate the day of reckoning to follow. I awoke early having not really slept well for worrying about my clinical decision for I was just about to go and supervise the slaughter of one man’s livelihood and history.

It was my birthday that day. A day of celebration of life, not a day for killing magnificent stock that had taken years of breeding.

The slaughter team arrived punctually at the arranged time of 10 am, followed by an animal health officer (AHO), a final year Glasgow veterinary student.

These men were professional and compassionate, despite having to carry out the task of a grim reaper. It was unfortunate that we had to wait a further four hours for equipment to arrive that would allow us to carry out the job safely and quickly.

In the meantime, a couple of cows were killed and I watched to ensure the men knew what they were doing. Then they moved onto the calves, some of which were days old – I could not watch this myself, but trusted the team implicitly.

Finally, the equipment arrived and the full-scale slaughter started – 191 in total. Three or four others were showing disease by this time, which helped confirm to the farmer that we were doing the right thing.

He was a remarkable man. He helped cart carcases out to the mounting piles in the field. He only seemed to wobble once and that was when the stock bull was taken.

I did not know what kind of support I could offer, but I kept asking him if he was coping and telling him to take things at his own pace.

I left the farm shortly after the last animal had been slaughtered, grateful in the knowledge that I had done my job and could leave, unlike the farmer and his family still under Form A.

I avoided the selective cull for many reasons. I knew I would find it emotionally difficult and was not sure I completely agreed with the politics. It was as if a bomb had exploded and the fall out was well defined and there was no room for risk assessment. A military operation indeed!

Even if a farmer had one field in the zone and his stock were at the exact opposite end of his holding, they were taken out. There was no room for discretion. Cattle on contiguous premises, was another thing I had difficulty with.

If disease is so easy to detect in cattle, why select them for cull? Could we not wait for them to show signs and use them as sentinels?

I am not an epidemiologist, politician, or a government scientist, so I do not proclaim to understand the science and politics behind these decisions, nor do I condone them.

In a 'war' against virus, there must be casualties, fall guys and 'sacrificial lambs'. It is simply a personal feeling I had of what was right and wrong.

I am sure in the fullness of time the rights and wrongs of the whole operation will be explored and hopefully some good will come in the end.

I returned to Edinburgh on day 19 of my tour of duty. I felt in some ways glad to be returning to my ‘normal’ job but in others felt frustrated and guilty that I was leaving before its conclusion.

The lessons I learnt during the crisis were personal and for that reason I feel unable to comment entirely on how I felt about the work I carried out. I hope this account may reveal some aspects of this duty that may not appear apparent to those looking on from outside.