A MILLION animals were slaughtered in Wales when foot-and-mouth disease swept through the country in 2001.

The disease crippled farming and threw tourism into crisis as Wales’ national parks and public footpaths were closed to contain its spread.

In the panic that gripped the country, large numbers of healthy animals were killed including the 2,800-ewe flock at Coed Owen Farm near Brecon.

Baden and Netty Rees, who had established the flock six years earlier, felt the pain of that loss keenly because it was unlikely that any of the animals had foot and mouth.

“When the ministry vets inspected our flock they told us they found a few ewes with lesions but the results came back inconclusive,’’ says Mrs Rees.

“We understood the cull of our flock was contiguous to stop the disease spreading further down the valley.’’

Foot and mouth disease is highly infectious and causes fever and painful blisters inside the mouth and under the hooves – and can be fatal for young animals.

Powys and Monmouthshire were among the worst-hit counties in Wales.

Gareth Davies (right), pictured with his stockman, Victor Walkden, lost 25 per cent of his sheep and cattle

The Reeses were relative newcomers to the industry compared to their farming friends, especially on the hill adjoining them, whose families had been there for generations.

“We witnessed old farmers cry at the loss of their livestock. The older generation of Beacons farmers who were born and bred here and had farmed generations of sheep were angry and very sad,’’ says Mrs Rees.

The Reeses were compensated and used that money to restock but it took them 12 months to commit to continue farming.

“We didn’t know whether to jack it all in and walk away but we decided to give it another go,’’ says Mrs Rees.

“We were sufficiently compensated which helped us to secure our future at Coed Owen and restock the hill flock on the Brecon Beacons.’’

Did the crisis bring the rural community together? “Yes it did. We knew many farmers who didn’t lose their livestock to foot and mouth but struggled financially as it was near impossible to trade normally,’’ says Mrs Rees.

Wales’ final case was identified in Crickhowell, Powys, on August 12, 2001, with the country declared free of foot and mouth disease in December that year.

The Rees’ rebuilt their flock and today run 2,200 breeding ewes and a herd of suckler cows; two of their children, Molly and Jack, now farm with their parents.

Mrs Rees says there are no guarantees that history won’t repeat itself but believes that governments would respond differently if foot and mouth did reappear by only culling on positive results.

“It seemed such a waste of life, to destroy so many healthy animals. Was there any need to do that?’’

In 2001, the modelling work for transmission assumed that all movements were conducted legally which was “plainly naïve’’ according to Norman Bagley, head of policy at the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS).

Even though there are now new systems in place to control movements, Mr Bagley suggests many are still unrecorded.

“It only takes a relatively small amount of illegal movements to screw everything up,’’ he points out.

A new single, multi-species livestock movement service that will replace outdated existing services is due to go live next year.

The Livestock Information Service will completely replace the three legacy services that trace cattle, pigs, and sheep, goats and deer.

This will enable more effective livestock disease management, accurate forecasting and targeted enforcement.

Mr Bagley sees this as a step in the right direction.

“Since BSE and foot and mouth there have been various attempts to make the controls we have in place better but there have been huge holes in the system," he said.

While foot and mouth is now but a memory, for some farmers caught up in the 2001 crisis, another disease is threatening their livelihoods.

In 2001, the Davies family, of Cwmgwilym, Brecon, lost 25% of their sheep and cattle including an entire flock of pedigree Rouge sheep. There was no evidence of foot and mouth in the livestock but they fell victim to contiguous culling; some animals on offlying land had to be slaughtered on welfare grounds.

The business steadily recovered and rebuilt livestock numbers, emerging from the epidemic stronger and more efficient.

But in August 2020, a bovine TB inconclusive reactor (IR) halted the farm’s suckler herd dispersal sale and delayed plans to restructure the business to make it more viable as the Basic Payment Scheme is phased out.

“We had built up our suckler herd over a lifetime and to be told two weeks before the sale that we had an IR was devastating,’’ says Gareth Davies.

The herd has since gone clear and he has sold some of those cattle but it was a worrying reminder of how disease can wreak havoc on farming operations and future plans.

“I question whether the Welsh Government fully understands the emotional and financial impact that TB movement restrictions have on the individual farming businesses,” Mr Davies asks.