FOR a bystander watching the dozens of farmers who gathered at Middleton-in-Teesdale Auction Mart yesterday, it seemed like business as usual.

Buying and selling, chatting and laughing, it looked like a picture postcard of life in the countryside at the market, in County Durham.

But it was a scene that, for the past year, has been missing from life in the dales.

And the farmers' buoyant mood at yesterday's sale was more through relief that at last they can start to rebuild their lives after the devastation caused by the foot-and-mouth crisis.

Many farmers were catching up with each other's news after being confined to their farms for months, through fear of either bringing in or spreading the disease.

Dozens more had come just to show their support, while others travelled from as far as Scotland to buy new stock.

For owner and auctioneer Stuart Bell, the hustle and bustle of the mart was a welcome relief after a bleak year for the farming community.

He said: "There were not as many animals sold than during auction days before foot-and-mouth - just about 130 - but that is not so important as the fact that we are starting to rebuild and get back to what we love doing - which is farming.

"It's going to take, I personally think, about three years to get to anywhere near the amount of stock we had before foot-and-mouth, but the farming community is resilient and, even in hard-hit areas such as Cumbria and County Durham, many farmers are determined to rebuild."

Mr Bell also runs cattle marts in Penrith and Kirkby Stephen, Cumbria, where the epidemic almost obliterated sheep and cattle.

A Teesdale farmer at the auction said that although all his animals were slaughtered during the epidemic because of contiguous culling, he was determined to continue.

"Farming is my life. I know nothing else, so I will just have to pick myself up and get on with it," he said.

"I think a lot of the farmers here are in the same boat."

But there are still problems.

York Livestock Centre, at Murton, North Yorkshire, hopes to reopen next week.

But partner Richard Tasker said new legislation which demands a range of strict bio-security measures to guard against any re-emergence of the disease were too much.

He said: "It is so over-the-top for us to be monitoring things like everybody's name and address, times of arrival and departure, and what stock they have been in contact with in the previous seven days.

"We have always had a high bio-security system here anyway, but what they are trying to do now with these restrictions, there is no justification for some of it."