FOOT-AND-MOUTH was a harrowing time for the farming industry and for many it saw the end of generations of family farms, and the huge loss of livestock left a permanent scar in Scotland’s farming communities, both physically and mentally.

Former sheep farmer and past secretary of the Bluefaced Leicester Sheep Society, Fiona Sloan, lost her entire Texel sheep flock during the peak of foot-and-mouth, whilst also trying to support members of the society who were experiencing their own losses and grief.

Over a short period, Fiona had to battle through a series of trials, which, impacted her hugely emotionally and physically, leaving her with depression. It wasn’t until she sought help from her GP and underwent some counselling sessions, that she began to realise how much she had taken on in her life and make sense of the way she was feeling.

Through her story, Fiona hopes to stress that farmers can be guilty of letting their worries build up until they spiral out of control and how important it is to seek the right help and to surround yourself with positive people who will help you through the dark times.

“I remember the day my life turned around. I was signed off work with stress and was sitting weeding in the garden and all of a sudden, I couldn’t move. I phoned my best friend, Susan, and she said – ‘phone the doctor and call me afterwards’. I phoned the doctor and just like that I had taken the first step.

“I had an amazing GP who put me in touch with a counsellor, despite my initial hesitation. What could they tell me that I didn’t already know? Six weeks later, I was sitting down for my first session and she asked me to give her a summary of the last five years and that’s when it all began.

“In 1998, I was told I had cancer – the doctors found a carcinoid tumour and I was diagnosed with bowel cancer. For the following two years I underwent surgery and in the winter of 2000 my husband and I decided to separate, which meant selling the farm, all of which concluded in the spring of 2001 during the peak of foot-and-mouth.

"I was now the single parent of a four-year-old. That year I also had my entire flock of sheep destroyed and I can honestly say it was the most soul-destroying time of my life.

“At the time, we had a farm down in Ruthwell Station, near Dumfries, where I had a flock of pedigree Texels which I’d had since the first import in 1974. I had shared a ram with a girl whose dairy herd had gone down and that brought me in to the 3km contiguous cull.

"I’ll never forget that day. I was in the Bluefaced Leicester office in Annan, when over the radio the Scottish Parliament announced the cull and I remember leaning over my desk and bawling my eyes out. I don’t think I’ve ever cried as much as I did that day, even more than on the day they finally went. I was distraught at the thought of it.

“It was weeks later, when I got the farm sold, that the man whom I sold to, went down with foot-and-mouth on his other farm. I then became ‘dangerous contact,’ as he had been on my farm, which usually meant the livestock would be killed immediately, but with the volume at that time I had to wait until it was my turn.

“I had to 'phone the cull line every morning and speak to 'Ben' to find out if I was on the list for culling that day. I phoned from the office on the 13th day and eventually it was my turn. I remember him saying: ‘Fiona they are heading there now.’

“I remember going back home that night and it was all silence. And, it was silence for the next year before I heard the noise of new calves going in to Dot and Ian Goldie’s farm across the field. That was the first sign of livestock in a whole year within the seven-mile radius of that farm.

“During and after all of that, I had also decided to move to a new house and ‘kickstart’ my life.” The counsellor looked up at me and said ‘and you wonder why you’re struggling. Your whole body has just told you – enough!’

“I always felt the cancer had made me stronger to cope with foot-and-mouth, which had made me stronger to cope with the divorce, which had made me stronger to cope with changing jobs, moving to a new house and so on. It had all just been piling up. I still have the cancer now, but of all those things, foot-and-mouth was the worst.”

Fiona was the Bluefaced Leicester secretary for 17 years. She began in 1988 and saw the society through the foot-and-mouth era before she left in 2005.

She recalled: “As the breed secretary at the time of foot-and-mouth, I had a lot of members calling up with horror stories and those who needed someone to offload to. One day, a member called me who I had never met before and asked if I could speak to his wife for half-an-hour as the trucks had arrived to begin the cull on their farm.

"I did for a time, but suddenly there was silence on the other end of the phone and in the week that followed, I will never forget the worry I had about this woman until her husband called back to thank me for my time and said that they hadn’t been able to process everything, or speak to anyone about what had happened. Even thinking about it all right now, I feel so emotional, just taking all of it on board – I found myself taking on everybody else’s grief.

“If you said to me here’s cancer, or here’s foot-and-mouth ... I would choose cancer in a nanosecond. I would go through anything before going through foot-and-mouth again.

“I still have a carcinoid tumour. It’s not curable, but it isn’t dangerous. Before my diagnosis in 1998 I was misdiagnosed for some time with irritable bowel. People ask why I was misdiagnosed? How did I not notice the cancer? With my cancer, it grew slowly over two years – you don’t notice the differences, you just grow in to the difference. My doctor thought it was irritable bowel caused by stress in the late 1990s and I just swept it under the carpet.

“Since I was diagnosed with depression, I have had episodes where it crept back and some days it is like walking through treacle. A big cloud comes over you. It’s about recognising the signs that you are falling back in to that place.

"For me, I begin to start looking at things in a negative light. Sometimes you need your friends to tell you ‘stop being an arse, we know this isn’t you’, as I don’t think you always recognise symptoms yourself. I needed someone else to tell me I was in trouble and the day Susan spoke to me was the day I turned around.

"I’m lucky to have a great circle of friends who all look out for each other. This is very important and they will often notice little changes, and good friends will tell you that they have spotted a difference. Now, if things upset me, I get them out my life as quick as I can and that includes negative friendships.

“On hindsight, I had suffered from varying levels of depression most of my adult life but I grew up in the 1960s and nobody discussed mental health, from then through to the 1980s. With the benefit of hindsight, if I could tell my younger self one thing, it would be ‘if you begin to feel like this, then deal with it now, don’t let these things develop until they are out of your control.’

"People can see a broken arm, but they can’t always see a broken mind. If you have a broken arm, you’d fix it. So if you have a broken head or mind, it needs fixed as well,” concluded Fiona.

Guidance and support

If you have personally been affected by any of the content in this series and would like to seek further advice, please see the contact details of specific organisations below:

* Breathing Space – Lines are open Mon – Thu between 6pm - 2am and from Fri 6pm – Mon 6am

* RSABI - Helpline open seven days between 7am – 11pm on 0300 111 4166 or

* Scottish Association of Mental Health – Call the info service on 0141 530 1000 Mon – Fri between 9-5 or

* Samaritans – Helpline open 24/7, on 116 123, or 08457 90 90 90, or

* Support in Mind Scotland (National Rural Mental Health Forum) Call on 0131 662 4359 Mon – Fri between 9am – 5pm or

* If you need urgent medical attention, then please call NHS 24 on 111 or call emergency services on 999.