Till the Cows Come Home...

By Nick May


The Foot and Mouth epidemic of 2001 was particularly devastating to the proud and traditional stock rearing areas of Cumbria. Here, at least one and a half million animals were slaughtered, more than half of which were healthy – due to exclusively slaughter based policies adopted. The trauma to the family farming and rural communities was immense as was the scale of the culling operation and even now the psychological and economical effects continue to haunt the community.

As a result of the epidemic, a project I was working on with farmers in Scotland stalled, so I turned my attention to making a record of the immediate and longer term consequences of the epidemic on farming in Cumbria. The proposal was to make a series of (Regional Arts Lottery funded) documentaries with families from various farming sectors – in some cases following through consequential developments over a period of several years. I also launched a parallel photographic project, specifically using a high quality panoramic format for emotional and stylistic resonance and to distance it from journalistic treatment. I was experienced with documentary production but I had not previously undertaken a major photographic project. However, the two projects complimented each other extremely well and I was keen to develop their quite distinct potential. The objective of both was the reverse of the intrusive and temporary interest of the national media. I worked closely with a wide spectrum of farmers and recorded from the inside what Foot & Mouth had meant for them and how they would go forward.

It is rare for an artist or filmmaker to have the opportunity to work with a community over an extended period, and there was inevitably a great deal of fundraising involved. However, in this instance it was essential to build relationships and trust over time and I was keen to involve representative farmers rather than the usual spokespeople, landowners and NFU representatives.

For many older farmers FMD was an opportunity to sell up and retire. For others it was difficult to restock for fear that the same devastation could happen again. In most cases, if succession was in place, the families came back with renewed facilities and expanded herds. Despite the hopes of the Curry Report that farms would diversify and downsize, concentrating on adding value and marketing, most responded to the depressed milk and livestock prices by streamlining and expanding production. The landscape of Cumbria is not suited to industrial scale farming but the aftermath of FMD accelerated the tendency for family farming to decline and agri-business to take a stronger hold. Despite this there have been a number of diversification schemes and the opening of farm shops and cafes, and even an organic conversion.

Livestock and dairy farmers work extremely hard and are not much given to sitting around talking. In most cases I therefore spent a great deal of time on farms recording the daily work of farming before asking the families to tell me their stories. When they did, the result was extraordinary and in one case I had to use a twenty-minute monologue by a young shepherdess almost uncut. The government’s confidence had left people profoundly disorientated and angry, ye the community had been under daily surveillance from a series of agencies, as they went through the long process of washing out, reinstatement and restocking. Conversely, many of those whose stock had survived the epidemic had lived for months under a state of siege and in near isolation – trying to keep all visitors and government vets out, during which one farmer I worked with had even lost the ability to speak.

I was extremely privileged to have this unique and extended access to the community. The epidemic had caused deep rifts and resentments within the community itself and those who had lost stock or pedigree herds built up over generations were suffering shock and bereavement. Despite this, even if the subject was avoided within the community itself, the families were very keen that their experiences were recorded and understood. Very personal interviews and farming sequences shot over months or years became a powerful repository of testimony and having moved on, the families themselves were often surprised at the strength of feeling expressed in the final edits. One farmer, Edward Harrison, the patriarch of a very committed dairy family, had lost his legs in a farm accident six months before FMD. He was just recovering when the herd was slaughtered and hadn’t fully appreciated what the rest of the family had been through. These were extraordinary experiences and of course FMD had been a life-changing event for thousands of rural people.  None of the families had been involved with a film project before and at the outset I offered to show them the edits before completion to make any changes they felt necessary. Although this is not usual practice, I found it very important in cementing trust and no significant changes were made as a result.

Because of the sensitivity of the subject and because of the desire of political institutions not to do further damage to the tourist industry of Cumbria and The Lake District, for several years it became difficult to show any of the work in Cumbria. A great deal of regeneration money came into the country on the back of FMD but the new agents created were paradoxically the most hostile to preserving its memory. Yet to secure the necessary funding for the photographic work from the Arts Council – which was very supportive throughout, it was necessary to exhibit. I was keen that the work would eventually tour back to the farming community and working from further afield back into Cumbria held a series of exhibitions in both Galleries and agricultural shows which culminated in the year long installation of 47 prints in a converted barn at Abbott Lodge Jersey Ice Cream Farm near Penrith. The show was very well attended by the farming community and the 45 minutes film I had made with the family ran to packed sittings at the opening.

Following on from this, I was able to proceed with a major exhibition of photography and film, Till the Cows Comes Home, to mark the fifth anniversary of FMD, in the main gallery of Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery in Carlisle between may and July this year. The exhibition featured seven films with a total running time of four hours, made over a five year period – showing in three projection spaces and a photographic essay of 76 panoramic photographs – many printed to large scale.


I was aware that much of the imagery in the media both during and after FMD was deeply offensive to farmers who had lost their stock – and my film with Steadman and July Dodd features July’s recollections of the horror of seeing people photograph the slaughter of their animals. She likened the slaughter of beef and dairy herd to seeing her family taken away. Consequently, the only images of carcasses used in the photographic work are from the records of farmers themselves. They were combined with my own panoramic images of empty farm buildings as a strip of reference images and are much more powerful than any number of familiar press images of burning pyres.

The imagery used in the photographic essay was the result of extensive research (and some 4,500 images made) and I was careful to record the shock and desolation of the immediate aftermath as well as some of the more positive stories of restocking, diversification and reinvestment. By featuring large scale prints of images such as ‘MAFF Guy’ (a photograph of a bonfire built by farmers, with Guy Fawkes dressed in the familiar white body suit and surrounded by empty fields), I hoped that the residual anger would be focussed away from any internal division and towards the government agencies which allowed the epidemic to have such a devastating effect.

Whilst the function of the DV documentaries was to enable people to tell their stories, using low key interviews and observational material, (which gives plenty of scope for lyrical combinations and incisive editing) the photographic project was relatively free from that direct responsibility to individuals. Here I was looking for powerful iconic images which could be assembled as my own analysis of the impact of FMD. The project was open ended and I set out to fund the visual pieces of the jigsaw and always kept the stills camera with me for when I was shooting video. One Saturday, I found a severed cow’s hoof on the base of a state-of-the-art rotary parlour at the largest new dairy installation in Cumbria. The hoof was probably being used as a measuring device but for me the vertical panoramic image derived seemed to sum up some of the ambivalent feelings thrown up in the farming and wider community by FMD; the guilt, resentment and even jealousy over the slaughter and compensation, as well as the move towards industrial farming. It took nearly three years to put the images for the photographic essay together by which time I felt most consequential developments had emerged.

Scale and quality are critical for presentation of photography, so throughout I used the Hasselblad XPan with three lenses and fine grain transparency film, together with a tripod and cable release for maximum sharpness and depth of field. I was therefore eventually able to make high-resolution prints of key images at over two metres across, which was essential for impact and emotional involvement in a large gallery.

The Tullie House exhibition was intended to be a positive validation of a difficult time rather than an unwelcome reminder. This was borne out by the extremely positive reception the exhibition received from record numbers of visitors, including many farmers, some of whom spent hours in the gallery watching the films. Although it brought back the memories, all the comments from farming people were very appreciative and positive. Many people commented that it was an important, moving and accurate record and deserved to be seen more widely.

It is imperative that this work is preserved for future reference, so my objective is now to get a photographic essay published as a book with a DVD insert of the seven films. Although there are already some good books on the subject, I believe this will be the definitive cultural record of the impact of the epidemic on the farming community and an invaluable record – at a pivotal moment of a way of life which is becoming increasingly marginalised.

Nick May is an artist and filmmaker