blue and silent tongues

Recently, there have been huge developments in the fight against Bluetongue (BT) disease. I have received a lot of information from far flung parts of the country and it takes time, on top of a busy life here at the farm, to finally put it on here in a coherent manner.

The first information came from Wales which became a Protected Zone (PZ) earlier this month, allowing vaccination to start and trade to be allowed with all other PZ’s.

However this is not as straightforward as it seems as Wales is a huge livestock area, comprising many small farms, with incomes to match. The vaccine is expensive and there is much conflicting advice as to how best to proceed.

Apart from imported livestock [where does it state clearly anywhere in the public domain if these tests were for antibodies or actual infection] no actual new case of BT has been reported in the UK this summer, and apparently DEFRA have not looked for any. It is also quite cold, and farmers generally find it hard to believe that BT infected midges will cause havoc especially in Wales and in the north this year. Farmers have or are just about to put their rams in with the ewes.  It is a generally recognised fact that vaccination will have to be repeated next spring.  So the question from Wales is why repeat it next Spring, why not give primary vaccination next Spring?

 

The second information came from Scotland who have announced a compulsory vaccination programme for all farm livestock to be completed between 1st November this year and April next year. Additional details can be found in this article from The Herald.

 

This heartfelt message came by email:

There are no clinical guidelines on vaccine use and rumour is rife: muddles with half heard stories and Europe’s experience last year, also there is the alleged cop out from the vaccine companies who want to guard themselves against being sued, and DEFRA who appear to not take any responsibility either.

The confusion is such: don’t vaccinate your rams now or they might be infertile, don’t vaccinate ewes from 2 weeks before serving until 2 weeks after- the rams remain in with the ewes for 9 weeks here [Wales], so Christmas will come before it is ‘safe’. 

The rumours continue: the vaccine may cause foetal loss, may disturb cattle cycling, vaccination may reduce milk yield in lactating cows or goats and buyers of store lambs don’t want it as they are fearful of temperature affects on the meat.  Then there is the problem about fitting it in with other vaccines and medicines another raft of cautions given by the manufacturers excluding its use with any other medicine.”

Another famer asked if they should put off giving anti-liver fluke treatment for the vaccine but after such a wet summer missing a crucial dose against liver fluke would be a major mistake. Jethro once bought sheep from a fluke area [unknowingly] and they were very ill before we learnt what was wrong and treated them accordingly.

And another email came from a farmer with a strong background in human medical science:

“Really with farm animals that are about to get pregnant, are pregnant, are suckling young or fattening for the butcher the cautious advice from the drug companies means that hardly any can be safely vaccinated according to their guidance.  Of course the vaccine has been taken off the shelf as quickly as possible so perhaps some of the safety testing that might have been done on young or pregnant animals for example has not been completed yet.

There is no one for the vets to turn to for clinical guidance [unlike in human medicine], there are no consultants in veterinary infectious disease to ask for advice, so they must bow to the farmers who must pay for everything and withstand any financial loss. 

Even my own vet is going to wait and vaccinate his sheep flock next Spring.  Really, I have to agree that that is the most sensible and economic policy, however I have vaccinated my own livestock.

 Vaccination next Spring is really the most important vaccination time.  It would be most convenient when the animals are in and before lambing.  Somehow farmers must also learn they have to vaccinate the young next summer as well before there is a window for infection when maternally derived antibody has waned, in convenient batches.”

 

The livestock here at Prosperous Farm were vaccinated in May and June this year. We plan to vaccinate the cows and the ewes next March in what will become a routine annual vaccination. The calves and lambs will get some immunity from their dams, and will be individually vaccinated at around one month of age. The calves of course will receive a second booster dose 3 – 4 weeks after the first.

 It is a horrible situation for the whole industry. Conflicting advice, multiple rumours, lack of actual science and the sheer practicalities [and costs] of vaccinating millions of animals who reside for most of the year in the far flung hills and dales of Britain are truly formidable. Initial reports suggest that Cumbria and Northumberland will follow the Scottish plan but there is a meeting organised by the National Sheep Association to be held at Hexham on 30th September so it will be interesting to see if the consensus changes in October. 

 

There is one other important point to make and it will be a very contentious one. BT is a notifiable disease and by law must be reported to DEFRA immediately. However, even if farmers were able to identify that they had a suspected case of BT [clinical signs are not always obvious] in all honesty why would they actually bother to report it? There is no compensation, and it seems that there has been little routine testing by DEFRA out looking for this infection, or if they have been testing  it has been kept very quiet.

The consequences of reporting a potential case are all financial: movement restrictions, lack of trade, and potential longer term consequences especially if the farmer has pedigree livestock. I think that with human nature being as it is will mean that nothing will be said, except perhaps by a few.

 Nevertheless this worries me as I do firmly believe that the British farmer is generally honest, reliable, hardworking and cares deeply for his animals, it is the attitude of powers that be and lack of genuine concern for the industry that have let the farmers [and their animals] down and brought us sadly to this point.

 

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