Wave of Diversity in Wake of Disaster; THE Foot and Mouth Outbreak in 2001 Devastated the North East Farming and Rural Communities. but the Disaster Provoked a Wave of Diversifications across the Region as Farming Businesses Looked at Alternative Methods of Making a Living from Their Land. KAREN DENT Discovers How the Epidemic Changed the Face of Farming for Some North East Families
FOOT and mouth has been hailed as the catalyst for a wave of farm diversifications across the North East, from turning outbuildings or redundant cottages into holiday accommodation to artisan food and drink-based businesses.
Many people were driven by the fear that the epidemic would return and they would lose everything again, so they decided to build an alternative source of income.
Widdrington in Northumberland was chosen as one of the vast sites where carcasses of slaughtered animals were brought for burial.
Nearby Widdrington Farm, which had been in farmer Hugh Annett's family since 1515, was hit at the start of its lambing season. A farm worker spent a night trying to keep the newborn lambs alive to no avail before the realisation struck that the sheep had succumbed to the disease. The 1,000 sheep and 380 cattle on the farm were culled.
Sarah Oakey, who had just met Hugh and will marry him this summer, said the devastating blow made them step back and consider what they wanted to do in the future.
"On the back of everything, it was an opportunity to take stock. With BSE and then foot and mouth, farming had been severely hit," said Ms Oakey.
"Foot and mouth gave the farming industry such a hammering. It does give you the opportunity to look at the business with a new set of eyes. We could've taken the easy option and retired to Barbados - but we didn't want to do that. The farm has been in the family for almost 500 years; we want to make that another 500 years."
The Widdrington Farm of today is very different to that of a decade ago. On the farming side, the family decided to introduce some purebred Suffolk sheep to the 1,000-strong flock and around 30 pure Limousin cattle to the 400-strong breeding cow herd.
Hugh's sons - Harry, now 21, takes care of the Suffolks, and 25-year-old Geoffrey deals with the cattle.
But the farm also diversified in a major way with the Country Barn farm shop, a coffee shop and now a bistro on land overlooking Druridge Bay. The first phase opened in 2006.
Ms Oakey said: "It's like the classic case of the Phoenix rising out of the ashes. It sounds like a cliche but it's true."
But she says that like farming, running a diversification is not always plain sailing.
"The first two years were very good, it was the boom time for the industry. But we have suffered massively from the recession. Last year was very, very tight and the snow before Christmas affected us, like everyone else."
The diversification is a major employer in the rural area and has created jobs for 35 people, whereas 10 years ago, the farm simply employed Mr Annett and two farm hands.
Providing produce for the farm shop has also altered the pattern of the farming year at Widdrington.
"We've been lambing since Christmas Day. The whole farming side has changed so that we can have lamb in the shop for the whole year," said Ms Oakey. Although the Urwins' stock at High House Farm near Matfen in Northumberland were not infected with foot and mouth, the epidemic still had far-reaching consequences for the future of the 200-acre mixed farm, which has been in the family since the early 1960s.
Farm owner Steve Urwin said: "We did not receive compensation from FMD, but the reason times were so difficult was due to not being able to move livestock freely for the following nine months and consequent feed bills associated with keeping livestock longer than planned."
His wife Sally said: "We were closed down and we couldn't move animals off the farm. There was no income. It was just a disaster.
"It was a completely miserable time, very isolating, no visits to the pub and constant disinfecting of cars and footwear. The local vicar was brilliant though, and made sure that he went around all the nearby farms - people were very down. Little farms like ours need to diversify to survive. …