Foot and Mouth was like a warm-up act for the calamity that Covid has turned out to be
It’s 20 years ago this month since the first case of Foot and Mouth disease was identified on a farm near the Ballymascanlon Hotel on the Cooley peninsula.
The hotel became the temporary HQ for the Department of Agriculture, army personnel and a bevvy of reporters who knew this was going to be one of the biggest stories of the year.
As a nation, we had spent the previous weeks watching in horror as the massive funeral pyres smouldered on the news bulletins from the UK.
They were just getting started on a cull that would eventually see over six million sheep, cattle and pigs destroyed in a desperate attempt to keep Foot and Mouth at bay.
Two decades later, we’re all seasoned experts in desperate attempts to control diseases that threaten our way of life.
Looking back at Foot and Mouth now, you could be forgiven for concluding it was just a warm-up act for the calamity that Covid has turned out to be.
In fact, within six months, it was all but forgotten as the economy surged on again in its Celtic Tiger bubble.
A large part of the successful control of Foot and Mouth was down to the draconian measures the Department rolled out as soon as it happened.
A cull of over 30,000 sheep on the Cooley peninsula was instigated straight away. Any qualms about ethics of euthanising day-old lambs or ewes at the point of lambing were swept aside ‘for the good of the nation’.
Larry Goodman earned a lot of admiration and goodwill when he miraculously turned around a derelict meat factory at Ravensdale into a fully functioning slaughter plant in the space of a long weekend.
It was geopolitical masterstroke to ringfence the disease to Cooley, which allowed the rest of the agri sector continue trading and exporting as normal.
Meat exports actually went through a purple patch as UK shortages drove higher prices for Irish product.
In contrast, it was the hospitality sector here, especially those relying on international visitors, that effectively took the economic hit that summer in an effort to prevent more Foot and Mouth cases entering the country.
It was an extraordinary display of solidarity with the farm sector that I’m not sure we’ll ever see a repeat of.
However, this glosses over the reality endured by the farmers who bore the brunt of the containment measures.
I’m told that the legacy of that massive cull across the hills overlooking Carlingford Bay and Dundalk Bay rumbles on even today.
The farmers in Cooley knew that they were being asked to sacrifice their flocks for the sake of the rest of the country.
They were compensated for every animal, but many are still sore about the differing rates of compo that were handed out to some who argued a better case, and some of the subsequent claims are still bogged down in legal disputes.
And even when the compensation was paid, farmers struggled to re-establish flocks on those same mountains.
As one farmer told me, it was 10 years “of torture”. For a start, the men from Cooley were going to be charged a premium for their replacements, since there was suddenly a huge spike in demand for good hill ewes.
Even after a flock had been assembled, it wasn’t uncommon for the same flock to be sold off the mountain a few years later because of their failure to ‘take to the mountain’.
It was one thing having sheep that could quickly figure out where the shelter, grazing and danger spots were, but it was another getting them to stay in the one patch of mountain.
‘The white wall’ is a term that hill sheep men sometimes use to talk about the effect that neighbouring flocks have on keeping each other in place.
Sheep are quite territorial, and like to stick with their own flock. If there is no flock on the patch of mountain next door, a flock often thinks it’s a free gaff.
That’s where the headaches start for the farmer who comes up the mountain trying to locate their stock.
Gaps in the patchwork quilt of flocks were quite common in the aftermath of the cull as many older farmers deliberated about going through the hassle of restocking their land or commonage with sheep.
Today, sheep numbers are back up on the Cooley hills. That deafening silence of those weeks and months immediately after the cull has been replaced again by the traditional chorus of ewes and lambs calling to each other.
It was one disease outbreak that we overcame but, like any epidemic, it took its toll.