On 19 February 2001, cases of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) were detected in an abattoir in Essex, England.

These were the first cases to be detected in 20 years in the country and the discovery threw the governments in England and Ireland into a state of panic.

The very next day the Irish Government, including the Government in Northern Ireland, imposed a ban on imports from Britain in a bid to halt the spread of the disease.


On 1 March 2001, sheep slaughtered in Armagh were found to be carrying FMD and the threat was not underestimated, with even social and cultural events such as the Six Nations Wales-Ireland Rugby match cancelled.

All cloven-hoofed animals such as cattle, sheep, pigs, goats and deer can catch FMD, which has the reputation of being one of the most contagious of all animal diseases.

It is primarily spread through direct contact between herds by inhaling virus aerosols but under certain conditions can travel airborne over several kilometres across the wind.

Although the disease is not a threat to human health, it can still travel on people, vehicles and equipment.

Its resilience is phenomenal, and it can survive for long periods in frozen lymph nodes, bone marrow and viscera, making it particularly difficult to eradicate.

Causing painful blisters in the mouths or between the hooves of animals, its impact on the livestock it infects is devastating, with infected animals never regaining weight loss or milk yield and usually remaining lame.


As farmers across Ireland set up disinfection points at farm entrances, they watched with bated breath as more cases were detected across England.

Pyres of burning animals became a familiar sight on news channels as the UK battled to control the spread of the disease.

At the six-month mark it was estimated that 3.75m animals had been slaughtered.

The policy introduced by the English government meant that animals on affected and surrounding farms were culled.

Exclusion zones were also introduced to the worst-affected areas, meaning an economic hit not just to agriculture but the tourism trade in many rural locations as well.

Overall, it took nine months to bring FMD under control, and cost the UK public and private sector a combined £8bn.


No one is certain how the virus first appeared in the UK, but given the ability of FMD to survive for long periods of time in even partially cooked meat, it was theorised that animals may have been fed with catering waste that included imported meat. There then followed a ban on feeding animals any catering waste or kitchen scraps.

The physical and mental toll on the collective farm community in the UK was immense and still leaves a mark to this day.