England endures a season of death

Life goes up in smoke as foot-and-mouth ravages countryside

March 28, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TIRRIL, England - A cold wind beats down on David Altham as he stands on a straw carpet drenched in disinfectant at his quarantined farm, watching the collapse of his family's way of life.

Clouds of white smoke waft over the pyre that incinerates the last of his herd, 308 dairy cattle, a farm family's bounty amassed through nearly 60 years and three generations.

"To have it all disappear in smoke is not pleasant," Altham understates in a soft, steady voice.

This is Britain's silent spring, a season of death and despair as foot-and-mouth disease runs wild in a treasured corner of Cumbria.

Just outside the northern edge of the Lake District, where Wordsworth and others of England's Romantic poets were inspired, an age-old ailment cuts a swath of destruction through the twin industries of farming and tourism.

Farm fields and cozy hotels that usually would be attracting the heartiest of Britain's tourist trade at this time of year are empty. Pubs are quiet; restaurants, too.

Disinfectant mats lie on open roads, and warnings of $7,150 fines keep walkers off the closed hiking trails.

"It's everyone's worst nightmare," Altham says.

Striking cloven-hoofed animals such as pigs, sheep and cattle, but rarely humans, foot-and-mouth disease has raged through Britain.

Since being detected five weeks ago, the disease has spread to 694 places, with 1.1 million animals either slaughtered or due to be killed.

Some predict that the disease could spread to 4,000 sites by June, with a worst-case scenario that half of Britain's 63 million livestock would have to be destroyed.

Parts of the British countryside have been transformed into killing fields in a country mobilizing for a drawn-out battle, with 1,235 veterinarians and 780 soldiers taking part. A half-million sheep will be buried at an unused airport near Carlisle. Scotland is preparing another burial site for 200,000 lambs.

Farmers will receive financial compensation to restock their herds. But there will be no handouts to those who run hotels, shops and pubs, whose livelihoods are tied to a tourist industry that will die a slow death this year.

It is almost unbelievable at this time of year to be inside the glorious Lake District National Park and to be nearly alone. Tourism officials say they're open for business, but the truth is, there is an eerie silence on the lakes and an emptiness in the hills and mountains, known as the Fells.

"It's a ghost town," says Andrew Laverick, who runs the Catstycam outdoors shop in the usually bustling village of Glenridding. Over three days last week, Laverick sold one shoelace, for $1.43. His biggest sale this week was a $200 mail order to Bethesda, Md.

"People in London are blinkered to what is going on here," says Laverick, who says the government acted too slowly to snuff out the disease with quick kills, burials and a ban on unnecessary movement.

Up in the hills, there is fear that the disease will strike the Herdwick sheep, a rare breed traced back 1,000 years to the Vikings. The flocks stick to their own areas, preventing scrub and brush from enveloping the landscape.

"You take the sheep away, and the major part of what tourists have come here to see is gone," says John Harrison, who has kept his 38 hounds in a kennel and exercise yard for weeks, since hunting was canceled for fear of spreading the disease.

"It's all linked together, like a complicated machine," says Harrison, who lives in a cottage on a rough slope in a valley set between mountains lined with stone walls. "If one part stops working, the whole shebang falls apart."

Dappled with farms and quaint pubs and facing 3,000-foot mountains a few miles south, the area is the storybook vision of England come to life.

But the village of Tirril has already encountered the ravages of the unchecked disease. Its blight can be seen everywhere, from incineration sites that smolder weeks after being lighted, to the local school that was closed for a week so children wouldn't be exposed to workers piling dead cattle on coal beds.

Business is down everywhere.

"Downbeat would be an understatement," says Chris Tomlinson, 31, who brews sweet amber beer at the Queen's Head Inn, built in 1719 with heavy oak beams and warmed by a coal fire. "No one can say anything. People are just shaking their heads. There is huge sympathy all around."

While unemployed farmhands spend the afternoon at his pub, Tomlinson talks of the ruined tourist season. He's writing off the year, cutting staff from four full-time workers to one, and 12 part-timers to eight.

"If we're going to go down fighting, we might as well go down well-equipped," Tomlinson says, pointing to antique boxing gloves hanging over the bar.

Bowed but not beaten, Altham, 43, stoically weathers the disease at his Yanwath Hall farm, run by his family since 1942. The stone farmhouse is something of a museum piece, a 15th-century hall attached to a 14th-century tower.

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