FARMING has been at the heart of the Hexham Courant’s coverage since the newspaper was launched in 1864.

Every summer, agricultural shows have long provided an opportunity for farmers to showcase their stock, while the social engagement has been crucial to a vibrant farming community.

But that all changed this year when shows, starting with the season’s curtain raising Northumberland County Show, were cancelled due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

It’s not the first time in recent memory that the show season has been curtailed by unforeseen circumstances, however.

Anyone over the age of 30 will remember vividly the horrific summer of 2001, when farmers had much more than tents, sheep pens and rosettes to worry about.

At first, Tynedale’s agriculture community was being urged not to panic after foot and mouth disease was discovered at an abattoir in Essex in February of that year.

It quickly spread, and soon a case was confirmed at Burnside Farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall. It led to a mass slaughtering of livestock, leaving a huge cloud of uncertainty over the future of farming in the district.

South Tynedale farmer Willie Weatherson has vivid members of 2001, when he lost 70 cows and over 1,000 ewes after the disease was confirmed not on his farm, but at another nearby.

“It was a sickening time,” he said. “A lot of farms were taken out and understandably there was a lot of anxiety.

“The cancelling of the show season didn’t really matter at that time because we didn’t know what the future had in store.”

Later that summer, Willie was pictured in the Courant with his new stock, which he had sourced from around the region. It was regarded as a new start, and while some farmers were unable to recover, the existence of the agricultural community today is in large part due to the courage and commitment of rural people to fight on after such a devastating setback.

“It’s very different now,” said Willie. “The coronavirus pandemic is an awful thing for society, but it’s not affecting the animals.

“Foot and mouth devastated the livestock system completely. Covid-19 has affected farming, but the auction marts are operating and we are not at a complete standstill like we were back in 2001. We can just hope that everyone gets through this pandemic and can look ahead to brighter times.”

Willie is as well qualified to speak about agricultural shows as anyone. When the Roman Wall Show began 65 years ago, his granddad, William, was a founding member, and his father, Thomas, also played an active role.

A long-serving show official himself, Willie was followed by the fourth generation of the family, his son Stewart, who has served as secretary of the event.

“I’ve always loved the shows,” said Willie, who is a familiar face at shows across the district, and is just as comfortable with the master of ceremonies microphone as he is in the ring.

“Of course it’s a huge miss to us all when they’re not happening. The social aspect of them, and keeping in touch with people, is absolutely vital to the farming community.

“It’s just a case of getting through this difficult period. We have to try and support each other as best we can, and hope that things return to normal as soon as possible.

“You don’t want the shows to be missing for long, but I am sure everyone will be all the more determined to make up for lost time next year.”

Some shows, including the Roman Wall Show, have used technology creatively to hold virtual events using social media. “Technology has moved on a lot over the past two decades,” said Willie. “It’s been very heartening for people to get involved with virtual shows and keep the interaction going, albeit from a distance.”