Burial space, part 2: foot and mouth burial sites

The mass burial sites built in the UK during the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic offer us another example in which to look at burial density. The mass burial sites were build in an environment of extreme urgency, with the goal of disposing of as many carcasses as possible.

According to the NAO report:

The backlog of slaughtered animals awaiting disposal built up to a peak of over 200,000 carcasses in early April 2001. Carcasses were sometimes left rotting on farms for days on end and this discouraged prompt slaughter, particularly for contiguous premises. After considering a number of options, the Department decided to carry out mass burials on sites with impermeable clay soils that were remote from residential properties but accessible to large vehicles. The armed services and the Department rapidly identified several hundred possible locations. The Environment Agency quickly assessed them and seven suitable sites (Figure 48 opposite) were agreed upon and brought into use, with the necessary infrastructure, such as special access roads, being built where needed. Some 1.3 million carcasses were disposed of in these mass burial sites – principally sheep from the contiguous and three kilometre culls. Technical problems, for example, carcass liquid seepage, and public protests prevented the greater use of some sites.

Carcass Disposal: A Comprehensive Review comments:

Risk assessments, groundwater authorizations, and planning consents were generally performed retrospectively (Scudamore, Trevelyan, Tas, Varley, & Hickman, 2002, p. 778). Although the use of these sites has been reported by one source to have “saved the campaign,” by allowing the disposal rate to catch up to the slaughter rate, the consequences of the haste with which these sites were brought into use will undoubtedly be long-lasting and costly.

In other words, the mass burial sites were build at a time when the government was desperate to find a way to dispose of as many bodies as possible. The government had access to an entire country in which to choose optimal locations for mass burial. It’s worth noting that they chose sites with characteristics opposite those of the Reinhardt camps: clay soil rather than sandy soil. They did not avoid sandy soil (which Treblinka in particular is noted for) simply because it leads to much greater groundwater pollution, but also because sandy soil doesn’t allow for the digging of pits with steep walls, and therefore leads to less efficient use of burial space.

In short, the foot and mouth mass burial sites were built under conditions such that we would expect them to make maximally efficient use of burial space, with the benefit of being able to call in the army to help build the sites, and with unlimited access to excavation equipment far superior to that available in the 1940s.

This table from the NAO report shows the characteristics of the mass burial sites.


As sheep weigh 50 kg on average, as a rough approximation we can state that the burial space needed for a given number of sheep is equal to that needed for a given number of Jews. (Of course, there are factors other than weight determining space requirements; emaciation will make less of a difference on burial space requirement than on weight because the skeleton does not shrink and determines much of the burial space requirements.)

The number of bodies buried (and the estimated burial capacity for sheep carcasses) per hectare varies. However, these figures may be misleading, as the burial site did not necessarily take up the entire location. Carcass Disposal: a Comprehensive Review remarks that

in the case of mass burial sites, additional land area beyond that required for actual burial may be required (i.e., for the North Wake County Landfill, only about 30% of the total land area is dedicated to burial of waste, with the remaining 70% required for support areas

Of course, those support areas would also have been required at the Reinhardt camps, so if we’re comparing space requirements to, say, the entire size of the Treblinka upper camp, it would be perfectly legitimate to include them.

Next time we’ll look more closely at one of the mass burial sites, to get a clearer sense of exactly how much space was used for the burials.

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