IT IS 20 years since farmers across Northumberland were forced to cull their livestock in the worst way imaginable.

Thousands of cattle, sheep and pigs had to be killed - Northumberland was at that time heavily stocked with sheep and cattle out at grass.

But it wasn’t until after the first case of the devastating disease came to light at an abattoir in Essex, that it was found it had come from Burnside Farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall. Pig farmer Bobby Waugh was later banned from keeping farm animals for 15 years after being convicted of several offences. It was claimed he frequently fed his animals untreated catering waste from restaurants and local schools.

But the source of the virus, which killed millions of livestock nationwide, remains a mystery.

Foot-and-mouth disease was confirmed on 32 farms in the county between July 21 and September 5. In all 5,753 cattle, 38,448 sheep and 714 pigs had to be killed.

Foot-and-mouth in 2001 struck twice in Northumberland with later cases discovered in August of that year in a 400-square-mile region near Hexham, which had been virus-free for months and where animal movement restrictions had been due to be lifted within weeks.

Instead, tighter restrictions were imposed and footpaths in the area closed

Hexham and Northern Marts Managing Director, Robert Addison described that time as “shockingly memorable.”

“It was horrendous. It was our war, until, of course, Covid struck,” said Mr Addison.

“The auction marts were closed during foot-and-mouth, and some have been forced to do the same at some point during Covid. It will definitely come back in some form in the future, but we would be prepared. There are not the same numbers of stock around and there is movement and livestock identification systems in place now.”

Neil Hudson, MP for Penrith and The Border said: “We have learned some lessons from FMD in 2001 – from strict movement restrictions, animal identification and calling in the Army early.”

He added: “But now technology has moved on, heaven forbid if we face another FMD outbreak then vaccination would likely be part of the Government’s armament to control it.”

It took nine months to bring foot-and-mouth under control, costing the UK’s public sector £3bn and the private sector £5bn.

Amid the great public outcry the government promised lessons would be learned.