SIR Ben Gill, former president of the National Farmers Union, has died after a long illness, aged 64.

During his presidency - 1998 to 2004 - he led the union through two of the industry' worst crises, and quickly gained a reputation as a formidable fighter for farmers.

The BSE outbreak began in 1998. The foot and mouth outbreak began in 2001 and resulted in 10 million cattle and sheep slaughtered and their carcases burnt on huge pyres.

The NFU said Sir Ben showed huge strength of character during that time and, in 2003, also fought hard and won major reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy.

Meurig Raymond, current NFU president, said: "Ben Gill always had a big personality and tremendous determination.

"He led the farming industry through some very difficult times, but he always fought hard on behalf of the NFU's farmer and grower members.

"Our industry will continue to benefit for a long time as a result of his achievements."

Sir Ben was born in York and educated at Barnard Castle School before reading agriculture at St Johns College, Cambridge.

He then spent three years teaching agriculture in Idi Amin's Uganda before returning to run a pig farm in East Yorkshire.

In 1978 he took over his father's Home Farm at Easingwold. He also began his association with the NFU.

He became council delegate for the then York County Branch in 1985, was chairman of the national livestock committee from 1987 to 1991, when he was elected national vice president. He then became deputy president and was elected president in 1998.

Sir Don Curry, who farms in Northumberland, first met Sir Ben on the train which took them to their first NFU Council meeting in 1985.

They became the best of friends and spent years working closely together with Sir Ben, president of the NFU, and Sir Don, chairman of the Meat and Livestock Commission.

Sir Don said Sir Ben would probably be best remembered for his leadership during the Foot and Mouth crisis.

"It was a time when the industry needed strong leadership and he delivered that in spades. He was highly intelligent and very robust in his representation of the industry.

"To my mind he was one of the strongest leaders our industry has seen and he will be sorely missed."

Sir Ben was appointed a CBE in 1996 and knighted in 2003.

In 2006 he sold the farm at Easingwold but kept the house and buildings to create the Hawkhills Consultancy, which advises the agri food industry and the renewable energy sector.

He and his family moved to Herefordshire where he became chairman of Visit Herefordshire.

Sir Ben is survived by his wife, Lady Carolyn, and four sons.