It’s an anniversary I would rather not remember, but 20 years after the 2001 foot-and-mouth (FMD) outbreak it seems it will be hard to forget – and maybe we shouldn’t, because we certainly never want to repeat it.

Before the latest lockdown, I was persuaded (eventually) to take part in the BBC Radio Scotland 'Our Story' programme, produced and presented by the talented Mark Stephen. I had taken part in literally hundreds of media interviews, but nothing quite like this one.

I thought that after nearly 20 years had passed, I could talk about the 2001 FMD outbreak with a degree of objectivity and detachment – the memories, the characters involved, the lessons learned, that kind of stuff.

It took both Mark and myself by real surprise, sitting in early winter sunshine in the garden at Tower, recounting the hellish events, what happened to me next. Normally I’m very controlled, natural and confident with a microphone in front of me. But not that day.

As I began to talk about the start of the outbreak and the families who were involved, the memories all came flooding back. My voice began to crack and the spontaneity in front of the microphone had gone.

I seldom talk about that time, so maybe it is no surprise that the memories, feelings and emotions I have in my head are much closer to the front of my brain than I had realised.

The only other time I can remember feeling anything like this in front of a microphone or camera was the press conference at the Rural Centre 20 years ago explaining what was about to happen with the start of the 3km pre-emptive cull.

We had to try something to get control of a situation which was clearly completely out of control, when there was no plan. The room was packed with media and not just the farming press, as it was clear FMD was going to have a huge impact on the whole country, not just agriculture.

I sat between my friend and mentor, the late Ed Rainy-Brown and the equally talented NFUS senior policy director, Sarah Bradburn (now Simpson). For the first time in my life, I had a script in front of me that they had helped to prepare as I wasn’t sure if I could deliver the message which I had to – it was so brutal.

Writing this, it feels as if I’m back in that room where you could cut the tension and emotion with a knife. Three things I remember like they were yesterday.

First, as my voice began to tremble and crack, Ed’s reassuring hand on my shoulder. I didn’t look at him, I couldn’t, but in that instant I was certain we were doing the right thing.

Second, the reaction of those in front of me, particularly the agri-journalists. The tears, the emotion in their faces, it was clear they understood the staggering implications of what I was saying and they were feeling some of the pain that hundreds of farming families caught up in this mess were about to experience.

In fact, the irrepressible, much-loved, great character who was Dan Buglass was in an even worse place than me emotionally, sitting right in front of me.

Thirdly, it was the coverage of this press conference the next morning on the front page of the Scotsman, written by the wonderful journalist, Fordyce Maxwell, that defined who I became at that time. He captured that moment and its’ significance perfectly.

He captured me and my feelings in that instant perfectly as well. Because of that I made a promise to myself that there would be no more tears from me, and I would work day and night to get through that awful time with Ed and Sarah and the NFUS team. That’s exactly what we did.

He knew, as I did, there were going to be lot of tears and sadness to come from folk directly involved in this tragedy and they were the ones that mattered – and still do actually.

If the memories that Mark Stephen recently stirred in my head are as raw as they plainly still are, you can figure out for yourselves what folk who experienced, tasted and smelt FMD up close and personal still feel when their own memories are disturbed.

When Ken Fletcher asked me to have a go at this, I wasn’t sure if I either wanted to or could do to be honest. The reality is that I could write a book about that time, but I prefer not to dwell upon it.

Uncompromising, brutal, unfair, necessary are a few words that would form part of any FMD narrative – and, of course, ultimately successful. Successful not in a triumphant way, but successful in the sense that we eventually had a strategy, and because we stuck to it and were uncompromising in seeing it through.

It worked and Scotland was rid of the disease in under three months. Accepted, it was brutal, but we did it, whereas England hesitated and started making exceptions and the whole industry paid the price for a lockdown and export ban which took too long to lift as a result.

Funnily enough, the parallels with the current Covid-19 outbreak are evident. If in doubt, shut everything down and prevent movements. Animals and people in 2001, humanity in 2021!

And just as vaccines will be the exit route from the Covid crisis, I hope and believe that vaccines may well be the way out of any future FMD outbreak. I’ve read several scientific papers in 2020 (one of the penalties of Covid-19 lockdown!) which would indicate that a vaccine, or vaccines, may become available which allow us to distinguish between infected animals and vaccinated animals, something we couldn’t do in 2001.

Whatever happens in a future outbreak, infected animals will still have to be slaughtered. There is no alternative to that. However, an effective ‘marker’ vaccine would allow others to be protected and spared, instead of being targeted in any pre-emptive, or firebreak cull.

Governments in the UK will certainly have better contingency plans than they had in 2001, but that wouldn’t be difficult, as anything is better than nothing! To be fair, in 2018 the four nations of the UK tested their FMD contingency plans in Exercise Blackthorn, which is reassuring.

There is clearly better animal traceability now than in 2001, although the efficacy of electronic tags in sheep is questionable and for cattle we still trace the paper not the animal! How we can see live pictures from Mars in 2021, but after 20 years still haven’t managed to electronically tag the cattle herd is one of life’s great mysteries.

Like Covid-19, if FMD ever returns, the country will be shut down immediately – that’s a clear lesson. However, that’s the easy bit as politicians are currently finding out.

Opening things back up is the challenge, just as it was in 2001 and 2007. In particular, in 2007 the lockdown was much more punitive and costly than the very limited outbreak warranted.

That, of course, brings into focus the challenge of not allowing FMD into the country in the first place. Last year, the National Institute of Health in the US (free of FMD for 100 years incidentally) estimated the annual number of livestock affected by FMD around the world to be between 28 and 79m head.

The economic losses from FMD in its report range between $6.5bn and $21bn annually and suggested that FMD could be present in three-quarters of the countries on earth.

The US, like Australia and New Zealand, have extraordinarily strict border controls to prevent FMD and other exotic, highly-infectious diseases from getting into their countries in the first place.

What of Britain? We have a border like a sieve and nothing has really changed in that regard since 2001. If you don’t believe me, as an example look at our airports during Covid-19.

We can’t even limit the arrival of people never mind dodgy meat products from international travellers arriving on our shores. It is estimated that 95% of the risk of re-introducing FMD comes from illegally imported meat carried in luggage into the UK, yet our border controls continue to be woefully inadequate.

It is not good enough for politicians to pontificate that we are a multi-cultural trading nation as an excuse to do little or nothing. It may be a bit easier to control borders in Australia and New Zealand, but the US? Come on, you won’t find a more diverse society and trading nation on the planet.

The difference is, these countries care enough, so they provide the funds. Despite the estimated £8bn cost of the 2001 outbreak, government still won’t spend the money to prevent this because it isn’t a priority.

This risk can only increase as we run around the world trying to encourage every country with a flag to trade with us. In summer 2021 newly 'unlocked' British holiday makers will flock to every cheap destination they can find to get some sun on their backs, further increasing the risk.

This is more than a theoretical risk and the epidemiologists should be including this as they are running their Covid-19-unlocking risk assessments and models. After all, they are the same folk that modelled FMD in 2001, so they should understand the risks.

My final random memory from FMD 2001 is from that summer after the killing had stopped. Someone in their wisdom decided it would be a good idea to hold a reception at Edinburgh Castle to ‘celebrate’ beating the disease.

I understood why, but I couldn’t bring myself to attend. It didn’t seem appropriate, at least to me, to celebrate while many families were still grieving and wondering what the future would hold.

Similarly, I couldn’t stand it then and still can’t stand it now, hearing folk crowing about the part they played at that awful time. It’s amazing how legends are born in the minds of some people.

Suffice to say, I lived and breathed every second of the awful spring of 2001 and other individuals can say and believe what they like. But in the famous words of that fine Welshman, Max Boyce, like the farmers who lost stock and will have their own private memories:“I know ... because I was there.”


Jim Walker was NFU Scotland president at the time of the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak and worked tirelessly from The Bunker, the Scottish crisis centre set up in Dumfries. No one knows more about the anguish created by the outbreak than he did, having friends and neighbours caught up in the maelstrom of the various culls. He instigated the 3km pre-emptive cull process which, though brutal, was instrumental in bringing the disease under control.