February 20 marked the 20th anniversary of the beginning of one of the biggest challenges ever faced by British livestock farmers, when foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) was confirmed in pigs at an Essex abattoir.

I covered the story at the time for radio and television, and witnessed the chilling time-line of how it all unfolded and the crucial mistakes that were made. This is how I saw it:

FMD ravaged British livestock farming for over seven months (last case, September 30), cleared more than 9000 British farms of livestock and claimed the lives of millions of animals – cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, deer and 'others' – leaving some areas with mile after mile of empty fields.

The financial costs were estimated by the National Audit Office to have totalled more than £8bn. Rural and tourism businesses were caught up in the despair which froze the British countryside. Many small businesses did not survive.

On February 19, 2001, Craig Kirby, a vet with the Food Standards Agency Meat Hygiene Service at Cheale Meats, near Brentwood in Essex, identified symptoms of FMD in 27 cull sows which had travelled from Bobby Waugh’s Burnside Farm, Heddon-on-the-Wall, in Northumberland. Mr Kirby’s worst fears were confirmed the following day.

Bobby Waugh was licensed to feed swill to his pigs and took deliveries of school dinner left overs from nearby Sunderland and Gateshead. The FMD strain involved – the virulent pan-Asiatic type 'O' virus, can survive for considerable lengths of time in meat, frozen lymph nodes, bone marrow, internal organs, salted and cured meats and non-pasteurised dairy products.

Those within the agricultural industry, with vivid memories of the 1967 outbreak, which had claimed the lives of 442,000 animals, pleaded with the then Minister of Agriculture, Nick Brown, to implement an immediate and total livestock movement ban throughout Great Britain.

FMD had been confirmed on February 20, but crucially a seven-day livestock standstill was imposed by the British Government at 5.00 p.m. on the February 23. Too late – the genie was out of the bottle!

By February 28, 12 cases of FMD had been confirmed in England and Wales – Essex (4), Northumberland (2), Devon (2), Wiltshire (1), Tyne and Wear (1), Herefordshire (1) and Isle of Anglesey (1). Scotland’s first case, in Dumfries-shire, was confirmed on March 1.

The Daily Telegraph of February 28, carried an editorial headed – “The Government has lost control of foot-and-mouth”. Heartbreakingly, over the following months, this headline proved to be horribly true.

From when FMD was first confirmed until February 23's livestock movement ban was imposed, other than movement restriction zones around confirmed cases, British livestock were traded and transported normally, with livestock lorries travelling hundreds of miles in numerous directions.

Sheep can harbour FMD without displaying symptoms, resulting in infected sheep becoming un-detected disease spreaders. The pigs which had travelled to the Essex abattoir from Northumberland, were the first animals to be confirmed with FMD, however analysis of the pattern of the spread of the disease, proved the virus was circulating un-detected in sheep in Northumberland, before February 20.

The Government’s submission to the Anderson Inquiry into the 2001 outbreak, stated that 'the disease was on more than 50 holdings across the country before the index case was identified.' It seemed clear that infected sheep traded in Longtown market on (at least) February 15, had helped the virus to spread widely through Britain before the first confirmation on February 20.

The first case in the Welsh Border county of Herefordshire was confirmed on February 26 on a farm at Llancloudy, in the south of the county. It provided a case study which illustrated the survivability, stealth and mobility of the virus.

On February 15, a Devon-based farmer and livestock trader had purchased 380 lambs in Longtown from Northumberland. Several days later, lambs from that farm in Devon travelled to Dover, where they were penned with other British sheep destined for Europe.

These lambs were at Dover on February 20, when confirmation of FMD in Britain prompted European countries to impose an instant import ban of British animals and animal products. All sheep at British docks were returned to the farms from which they had travelled.

Some lambs which had mixed with those lambs at Dover arrived at a farm at Llancloudy, in Herefordshire. On February 23, lambs from the that farm were traded through Ross-on-Wye livestock market’s prime auction. At 5.00 pm that evening all livestock movements were halted.

The next day, February 24, FMD was suspected in cattle on the Devon farm. Confirmed the next day. On February 26, FMD was confirmed on the farm at Llancloudy which had traded lambs through Ross-on-Wye.

Ross-on-Wye is close to where the county borders of Herefordshire, Monmouthshire and Gloucestershire meet. By April 7, more than 90 FMD cases had been confirmed in these three counties.

Many of the farmers who lost stock in these counties had been in Ross-on-Wye market on February 23. The sale that day had been for prime stock, with all but a few un-sold animals heading straight to the abattoir from the market. It seems likely that the farmers themselves had taken the virus back to their farms, either on their footwear, clothing, vehicles, or in their ears/nostrils.

Experiments at the Government’s research centre at Pirbright showed that the virus can survive in a human nose for up to 48 hours. The net result was that, individually, the counties of Herefordshire and Gloucestershire suffered more FMD cases than Northumberland, the county of origin.

The virus can spread via a range of intermediaries which have been in contact with affected animals/meat and/or dairy products. Intermediaries known to be capable of carrying the virus include humans, hides, hair, wool, hay, straw, sacks and packing fabrics, milk, manure, urine, animals, especially cats and dogs, hares, rabbits, rats, mice and birds. The virus can also be spread by wind, watercourses and vehicles.

Despite livestock movements being banned from February 23, the virus continued to infect British farm livestock for more than seven more months. Livestock movements were halted, strict biosecurity throughout rural Britain, countryside gatherings cancelled, livestock farms became fortresses, with farm roads barricaded to prevent humans and/or vehicles getting onto farms.

Yet somehow the virus still found a way over, through, under or around all defences, to infect livestock, devastate businesses and break human hearts.

Almost every one of the British farmers who lost their stock to confirmed FMD in 2001, had an opinion as to how the virus, an ingenious survivor, eager traveller and merciless predator, arrived on their farm.

Ominously, in 2001 British livestock farmers learnt that with viruses, just one seed can create an epidemic. Now, 20 years later the whole world is learning the lessons of another virus, but this one kills humans.