Monday, 28 February 2011

A bad day.....

Each day the staff working on FMD gathered in the mess room at Exeter at 8am for a briefing.  The message each day was similar; 'yes, it's getting worse' and 'you must be vigilent' were the main statements, along with 'we are coping' and 'we are all doing our best'.  It was tiresome.

In reality, the disease was spreading faster than MAFF could deal with it.  The slaughter of infected premises was slow, due to lack of people and equipment, and dead bodies were mounting up on farms.

To make life even more difficult, the press and media were aware of the chaos, and were making the most of it.

As Nigel and I drove away from Exeter one morning, both of us fed up, the phone rang.

From the drivers seat of the van I could only hear Nigels half of the conversation.  It went something like this:




"I understand........"

"We are on our way......."

He ended the call, and as I glanced at him, I noticed that he was staring at the phone and was a little pale.

"Who was that?" I asked......

"That was Bill B" (the farmer we had visited the day before).

"He's got it"

There was silence.

"Are you sure?" I stupidly asked.

"No.  But he is.  Remember what I said yesterday Matt.  If he says he's got it, then he has."

I drove towards the farm in silence.  I can remember thinking that I didn't know how to drive.  When I say 'how to drive', I knew how to drive, but didn't know whether I should put my foot down and get there quickly, or take my time and put off the inevitable.

Nigel broke the silence. 

"I'd better ring Exeter and let them know where we are going."

"What!  You mean they don't know?"

"No.  He had my number from yesterday, and wanted us to go."

It should have been a compliment, but somehow, it didn't feel like it at the time.

We arrived at the end of the farm lane.  The tractor was still there, and the gates were still locked.  There was no need to phone this time; Bill was stood there waiting for us.

Saying 'good morning' didn't seem appropriate, so I just nodded at Bill as we decamped from the van and got dressed.  Waterproofs on, wellies on, disinfect, top layer of blue disposable suit on.  It all seemed to take much longer than normal.

Nigel whispered to me:

"We'll need the 'forms'."

I got the necessary paperwork from the van, placed it all into a zip-lock plastic bag, and dunked the whole lot into the bucket of disinfectant.

The three of us walked up the lane in silence.  So far, nothing had been said except Nigels whisper about the forms.

We walked into the yard, and there stood in a holding pen outside the milking parlour stood a cow.

Looking back, ten years later, I can still see that cow now.

She stood awkwardly, it was as if it was hard work for her to stay upright, and the distance between her nose and the ground was about eighteen inches.  From her mouth, there was saliva drooling into a pool on the ground.

I was shocked.

I think Nigel was shocked.

'Just like a common cold in humans'.

It wasn't.

It was awful to see what less than 24 hours earlier had been a healthy, well looked after dairy cow.  She was dying in front of us.

"I noticed that she was a bit lame when I was milking.  She's never been lame before.  One of my best cows."

There was a long silence between us all.  Nigel broke the silence:

"I'm sorry Bill.  We'd better look at the others".

The three of us walked through the herd that were in the next building.  Before we'd got to the end of the building we'd found two more.

We knew the procedure.  We had to issue a 'Form B' and seal off the farm.  While I sorted out the signs, Nigel made his phone calls.

First call was to Exeter to let them know.

Then he had to ring London.  Vets on the ground weren't allowed to issue a 'Form A' (notice of infected premises) until London agreed to it.

I walked back into the farmhouse as Nigel finished his call to Page Street.  

"Confirmed"  was all he said.

We swilled down a cup of tea as Nigel started to complete the reams of paperwork needed.

Bill and I went out to check the cows again.  By this time, there were five showing obvious clinical signs.  We separated the five cows in silence, and went back indoors.

"What happens now?" I asked.

"We've got to come back tomorrow and slaughter" Nigel said.

"What about the five that have got it?"

"Page Street said to leave them until tomorrow" he said.

"You're joking?"

"I'm not happy about it either", he said.  "Have you got a gun in the van?" 

"I'll go and get it."

"I'll come with you" Nigel said.

As we walked back to the van, I felt drained.  I think we both did.

"There's a problem." Nigel said.

"They don't want the animals killed here.  They don't want their young son to see the slaughter or have to put up with the bodies lying around."

"What are we going to do?" I asked.

"See that?" he asked as he pointed to the next door farm one field away.

"I'm going to ask them to let us do it there.  They've got a pyre, they've got the buildings, and they're already on Form A."

We got the gun from the van and walked back to the farm.

We found our five cows, all looking terrible and waiting for us.  Quietly, and quickly, I walked up to each one, and shot it with the captive bolt pistol.  It wasn't difficult, they couldn't move away because their feet were too tender.  

With the dirty deed done, we moved into organisational overdrive.  Nigel and I walked up to the boundary, and had a strange meeting over a hedge with the neighbouring farmer, and the contractor that was employed to build the pyre and disinfect the farm.

It was all agreed.

There was a track up the side of the boundary field which led to the individual fenced off paddocks in the field.  The contractor would move their swing shovel off the pyre, and dig a gateway through the hedge at the top of the track.  We would drive the cattle up the track and onto the neighbouring farm.

We walked back to the farm and gave Bill and his wife the news.  The look of relief on their faces was strange.  I think they had started to come to terms with the fact that all their stock had to be killed; at least slaughter was one less trauma for them to witness.

Bill's wife had prepared tea for us all.  I didn't really want to eat, and even Nigels legendary liking of cake seemed to be absent.

The cows needed to be milked, and we suggested that we should wait until after that penultimate milking had taken place before we left the farm.

Sure enough, yet another cow was found to be suffering, so she too was put down.

Milking completed, everything organised, we left the farm for the night.

By the time we left, a police car was parked next to the van at the end of the lane.  We both washed down, and I picked up the bucket of disinfectant and poured it over my head.  Now I knew why they called it 'going dirty'.

The WPC (I don't think they call them that these days, but never mind) stood and looked at me in horror.  "You can't be too careful" I said, as I tried to smile at her.

Back at the hotel that night I sat on my own.  I didn't talk to anyone, and didn't eat.  I just looked into space and worried about what was coming the next day.


  1. thank you for writing this. Please write more if you can.
    We were in an exclusion zone, but all the animals culled near us didn't even have it. There is a lot still to come out, and its coming out will educate people for the next time it happens. Because it will happen again. As long as we import crap and let visitors bring in contaminated food it is just waiting in the wings...

  2. Thanks Chris.

    There is much more to come. Posts are scheduled for release at 9am each day.

    Tommorow, we slaughter that farm.

    I agree about imports and the likelyhood of it happening again.