It is 20 years since the country collectively held its breath and watched helplessly as across the Irish Sea thousands upon thousands of cattle and sheep were slaughtered to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD).

As newsreels from the UK showed huge pyres of farm animals being incinerated, with dark ominous clouds belching black smoke in the air, the Irish farming community got to work setting up mats and disinfection points at all farm entrances.

Minister for Agriculture Joe Walsh announces the first case of foot-and-mouth disease in the Republic of Ireland on the Cooley Peninsula.

For farmers on the Cooley Peninsula, however, there was a higher price to pay to keep the disease out of Irish herds and flocks.

Massive cull

A positive case on the Co Louth peninsula sparked a massive cull that left a lasting mark on the community there.

Despite the economic and emotional cost, the farmers of the peninsula were determined not to let the scars of the event blight the future of farming in the area and now run a successful annual sheep sale, with 2,500 ewes and hoggets sold last year.

Kepak Plant Athleague during the 2001 FMD outbreak.

As one farmer tells the Irish Farmers Journal, losing the sheep was “like a bereavement” but it made farmers “even more passionate” about keeping and breeding sheep on the green hills of Cooley.

John Wehrly

Sheep farmer, Cooley Peninsula

John Wehrly. \ Claire Nash

On 22 March we saw sheep on a nearby farm culled. The farmer was a neighbour to us and by lunchtime that day we were contacted by the Department of Agriculture.

The next day they came and they proceeded to slaughter our sheep on the farm. The lambs were put down by lethal injection and a humane killer was used on the sheep.

The next day we were told the other half of the flock would be killed in Larry Goodman’s factory, which was opened to facilitate the slaughter. There were sheep lambing going up into the lorry. It was a horrendous time for it to happen.

There was a 1km exclusion zone around the area and we thought the rest of the people around us would have been alright. There only was the one positive case, the rest of the sheep that were culled came back as clear.

But, bit by bit, the entire area was culled and there wasn’t a sheep left for miles.

It was like a bereavement, in a way. The silence was eerie. The peninsula was closed off to save the rest of the country.

We were promised we would be well looked after and well compensated but unfortunately that never came to pass.

The first sheep I bought back in was in August at the Irish Texel premier sale in Maynooth.

FMD measures in Kildare.

We went to Donegal, Mayo, Waterford for hill sheep – stock was very dear and we had trouble getting them settled and even to this day sheep would wander more than they used to.

The homebred sheep we had before knew their own area of commonage.

Some people retired altogether but now there’s probably the same amount of sheep as there was.

In 2010, a group of us got together because we found it hard to buy good breeding sheep and started the Cooley Sheep Breeders Association.

We have a sale on 1 September and we’re probably one of the best breeding sales in the country.

We have an outdoor ring in a field in Carlingford, which is kindly given by Ian Woods. We sold 2,500 sheep last year, a mix of breeding ewe lambs and hoggets.

We went from zero sheep and a complete cull in 2001 to one of the best breeding sales in the country at present. We’ve really turned it around. There’s a lot of passionate sheep men around here and even though they lost the sheep it probably made them more passionate.

Harry Marron

Sheep farmer, Annaverna, Cooley Peninsula

Harry Marron. \ Claire Nash

It came very suddenly. We had been checking the sheep for any signs when the outbreak happened in the North of Ireland. We had been putting out disinfectant and mats on the road and because we live in a cul-de-sac had actually been using a rota to make sure mats were regularly disinfected.

Everyone was checking their sheep but on 22 March we heard there was a local case and we knew we’d be affected because we had a field adjoining the farm where the case was.

It was a big shock.

The cull happened so quickly. In one sense the animals were gone before you realised it. We would have had around 200 sheep culled. It was like a mini lockdown.

My mother was alive at the time and it was a huge shock to her as she’d farmed them all her life.

FMD measures in Wexford.

It brought back a lot of painful memories, particularly for old people, the place was very desolate and the silence was deafening without the sound of sheep.

We had to source new sheep and that was an issue because we have hill sheep which would have known the area.

Our own family would have been four generations farming and breeding sheep in the area.

I don’t think we actually realised the quality of stock we had before FMD.

It has taken to now to get the sheep to where they were and they still aren’t fully at the level in my opinion. People’s sheep also move and wander much more than they did previously. Before you could go up and count on them being in a bundle in a certain place but that’s not the case anymore.

It probably accelerated some people leaving the sheep sector because we have marginal land and it can be hard to farm and make a living from.

Emotions ran very high with people at the time too because of all that happened.

I felt at the time the place could have been denuded of farmers because it’s hard to keep people on farming on marginal land.

It’s very positive now, there are many young people involved and it’s given new life to the sheep industry in the area.

We would be back up to around 200 sheep now again on the farm.

The sale every year is a fantastic idea and the quality of the stock is very good.

It’s a lovely place to come and buy stock and people even come to do some sightseeing in Carlingford while they’re at it.

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