Saturday, 20 October 2007

Counting for something

At the start of our two-day conference, (the combined ELA/EU FMD&CSF Coordination Action meetings held in Brussels on 17th and 18th of October 2007) farmers, vets, stakeholders and scientists, were welcomed to that semi-circle of seats, each with its own headset and microphone that is the Parliament chamber in Brussels.
United in a tentative optimism, we had come together from Holland, Britain, France, Germany, Norway, Switzerland and even the USA to listen and to question. In the UK, an unaccountable Ministry that gives the impression that animals count for nothing and that it is farming families who should bear the brunt both of animal diseases and the arbitrary controls to slap them down and stamp them out, is getting increasingly hard to stomach - but the fact that the MEPs had wanted us to come seemed a very promising start. Lily Jacobs of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, opened the afternoon's discussions with some statements that seemed promising too:
"animals must be seen as more than mere animal products"
and that
"vaccination should not affect value"
So optimism seemed at last to be justified. However, as some of us were able to say, emergency FMD vaccination (always so frustratingly "considered") is not going to be acceptable to those who resist it while the EU rules continue to penalise it. Insistence that trade is held up for a further three months, together with the complex meat treatments demanded, is simply not underpinned by the science. There were murmurs of support from behind and around when this was said but, to general dismay, grim shakings of the head by several of those facing us could be seen. The extra three month ban was defended in terms that made no sense at all to the scientists among us.

There are, it seems, persistent carriers of the dogma that FMD infection, stamped out at any cost in blood and unhappiness, is better than FMD elimination by the safe, potent, modern vaccines that can so successfully distinguish diseased from vaccinated animals.

It was a blow - the more so since it doesn't seem credible that this can be anything more than a thin disguise for protectionism. But the harm it causes to farm animals, farming families and to farming itself is incalculable and, as one of the gentle farmers at the conference later told us with such passion, the effects of 2001, let alone this latest misery, are still taking their economic and emotional toll. He said that in 2001, DEFRA had said that lambs had to be starving to qualify for the payments of the welfare cull
"We chose to feed them and ended up almost starving ourselves."

We were cheered by the robust assertion that expecting the farming families to foot the bill when they have no say in policy nor guarantees of efficiency is mere "taxation without representation" and unacceptable. But gloom returned at the news that the "Community Animal Health Policy" document, in its draft form, had actually had many references to "welfare" crossed through by the CVOs themselves. It made some of us very thoughtful.

This is not the place for a detailed report of the rest of the two day meeting. A great deal of ground was covered; there were experts with a refreshing manner and a grasp of their subjects that made listening a pleasure. Topics ranged from the practicalities of vaccine production to the importance of the genetic pool in rare breeds, from the skills on the ground needed in a crisis to the little known habits but boundlessly successful spread of the culicoides midge - and much in between. New friendships were forged, assumptions challenged without rancour, questions raised and answered - and a forum for change in the evolving European Livestock Alliance began to look increasingly possible. The speakers joined together at the front for a final question and answer session, the sun beamed in and everyone expressed warm appreciation towards ELA and the Coordination Action organisers for the hard work that had paid off so handsomely.

Even the disasters were not as bad as they might have been. Two of the most eminent of the party had been stuck in a traffic jam for six hours while the rest of us were in the EU parliament but had safely arrived and were smiling wryly at us on our return to the hotel. British Airways had managed to mislay both Roger Breeze's suitcase and the rapid diagnostic machine that was to have been demonstrated to all. It finally arrived at the Hotel reception area, safe and sound, the day after most delegates had left and very early on the morning of Dr Breeze's own departure. Roused at an ungodly hour to see it in operation after all, I was grateful to the French train strike that meant I too was still at the hotel. I can personally attest that getting a sample into the machine (it looked like a large toaster) is easy and safe. Once inside, the sample is locked irreversibly into its small cassette and can later be disposed of with no danger of cross contamination or leakage. My training took less than five minutes but I could operate such a machine in the field, see the results transmitted by the internet and then dispose of the sealed sample with as much confidence as any enthusiastic young operator in Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan.

Why there? Because, although not yet in sophisticated Europe, a paradigm shift in disease control is taking place. Irony of ironies it is happening in the former Soviet bloc countries. Driven by the need to protect the world from the biological warfare threats of former times, countless dollars and expertise are being poured into Eastern Europe. The Cold War development of pathogens and biological warfare is being sent into reverse there with the result that we are going to see diseases eliminated actually within our own lifetimes - many of those very diseases that are at present merely being swatted at by Europe with its regulations, arbitrary controls, agribusiness interests and absurdly centralised control freakery.

This progress from the East is unstoppable. The overall system that uses such machines will soon be in operation everywhere to pinpoint disease and target it efficiently. It isn't going to be stopped by DEFRA disapproval. It isn't going to be stopped by anything. Like the amazing success of Wikipedia, Google and the Internet itself - the opportunity to claim information without its having been channelled or diverted first will give back to ordinary people a large measure of control over their lives. Will we have long to wait before we see such a transformation happening in our own countries? Rather than years I think we can start counting the months. The impertinence of bureaucratic interference can be consigned to its inevitable obscurity. When technology allows to everyone who needs it access to information, democracy is alive and well - and it seems certain that this particular access to information will soon help ensure that our animals remain so too.
Photos: Moira Linaker

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

More bluetongue

Reuters reports that new cases of livestock disease bluetongue have been confirmed in Cambridgeshire and Kent, prompting the Defra to expand the area in which it controls animal movements.

"This is obviously unwelcome news for the farming industry, however, given the nature of this disease and its means of spread, this is not entirely unexpected," Deputy Chief Veterinary Officer Fred Landeg said in a statement.

The new cases were near Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, and Ashford, Kent. The country's first ever case of bluetongue was reported in Suffolk on September 22.

Landeg confirmed an outbreak of the disease in the country on September 28 after several subsequent cases of the disease which quickly spread from Suffolk to neighbouring county Essex.

Defra said there were 41 confirmed premises affected by bluetongue, as of 4:30 pm on Tuesday. Control Zones have been put in place around these two new cases and the existing Protection Zone has been extended accordingly.

In a separate statement, NFU President Peter Kendall said: "It is obviously deeply disappointing to learn the disease has spread as far west as Peterborough and that the Protection Zone has moved further across the country."

"As an organisation we need to look carefully at the implications of this news, and will be consulting urgently with our members, because it will have a major financial impact on a huge number of livestock farmers, particularly those in the Midlands."

Well, that is certainly one way of putting it!

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Scare over

According to Reuters, the temporary control zone in East Sussex was lifted today after negative laboratory tests for foot and mouth disease. Movement controls had been imposed on Monday after suspect signs of the disease in sheep.

Monday, 15 October 2007

New FMD case in East Sussex?

The news of yet another 3 kilometre Temporary Zone, this time centred on Beckley and Peasemarsh in East Sussex, could not have come at a crueller time. If the suspected sheep prove to be positive then bang goes the lifting of the restrictions so desperately awaited on Wednesday.

The DEFRA site just baldly points the way to its new Declaration in which, in the inimitable language and tone we have had to expect from DEFRA "keepers of a susceptible animal in the Zone"... "shall take all such steps as are necessary to prevent it from straying from the premises on which it is kept..." has put a slightly enlarged and clearer map of the new temporary zone here.

The BBC - which seems to get information long before anyone else, says that the:

"3km foot-and-mouth temporary control zone has been put in place around premises in East Sussex. It follows a veterinary assessment of suspected signs of the disease in sheep. Tests are in progress on livestock at the site near Rye.

The government had planned to lift the movement ban in low-risk foot-and-mouth areas on 17 October. The plan also to lift the Surrey foot-and-mouth protection zone was dependent on no further outbreaks."
If this proves to be a positive case will anyone still dare to suggest that the non-vaccination gamble paid off?

And now for some hot air...

DEFRA says methane emissions from dairy cattle should be reduced by 60 per cent within 15 to 20 years while refrigeration of fresh milk should be phased out:
"Officials at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have made a serious proposal that consumers switch to UHT (Ultra-High Temperature or Ultra-Heat Treated) milk to reduce greenhouse gas emissions"
explains Valerie Elliott in The Times this morning.

Michael Greaves, who alerted us to this, comments that it is yet another "example of the Kafkaesque world inhabited by DEFRA". Valerie Elliott quotes Ionwen Lewis, President of the Women's Food and Farming Union: "We are very privileged in this country to be drinking fresh pasteurised milk..." and this is very true.

In France, for example, fresh milk tended only on to be on sale where there were enough British immigrants to make it worthwhile but many of the French are now buying it too. The dairy adviser at the NFU says the DEFRA target could be achieved only by destroying half the national dairy herd. The Chairman of the NFU’s dairy board, Gwyn Jones' comment:

"I believe there are people inside the Government who are trying to destroy our industry. Here we are in the middle of fighting two diseases and this pops up from Defra. You have to wonder what is going on if our own people are plotting against us.."
Conspiracy? Or an insensitivity and incompetence of such breadth and depth that it amounts to the same thing.

More than hot air: One cannot help thinking about the discharges of intestinal gas - somewhat more of a threat to the ozone layer than the cows - produced by the human population of the UK . A mass cull perhaps? The excess population - especially the obese - could be turned into biofuel in a final solution for their welfare. Several of DEFRA's irritating little problems would disappear in one fell swoop.

"a fair number of these tough, resilient men tell me that they have had enough..."

An article today in the Herald warns that hill farmers in Scotland, men well able to withstand one of the harshest environments in Europe, are not going to be able to withstand the ravages of Bluetongue if it become endemic. They are talking about giving up. And, as the article predicts, (and not only in Scotland of course) if hill farming dies out there will be "one of the biggest environmental and demographic disasters yet".

Many will remember the miserable (and tragically unnecessary) Brecon Beacon cull of hefted sheep in 2001. Hefted sheep know their area and their shepherds are highly skilled. When this knowledge goes, it goes for ever. Bluetongue is not going to go. Without a vaccine it will become endemic and the ancient skills of the hill farmers are going to be lost. And BTV-8 vaccine production at Merial is still languishing under the intransigent command of DEFRA.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

".....The Dutch and Germans ...must be weeping at the delay"

"by a malign stroke of there is now at a halt while the clapped-out buildings are brought up to scratch." So says Clive Aslet on the subject of DEFRA's indefinite and groundless hold-up of Bluetongue vaccine at the Merial plant on the Pirbright site. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph he says that when a vaccine for Bluetongue is finally ready, there is no doubt that it will be used.
"This ought to pave the way for foot and mouth vaccine to be used as a matter of course throughout Europe.
He reminds readers that in those far-off days of August, it appeared that the Brown government had learnt the lessons of 2001. "Vaccination was talked of sympathetically. Since then, Defra has reverted to type" adding that it was the UK who pressed for Europe to be treated as a foot and mouth free zone in the first place and echoes what warmwell has always maintained,
"It is only the financial interest of a small number of livestock farmers - who would, for a time, be prevented from exporting their animals - that prevents vaccines from being used."
It is cheering to find that there are commentators talking about the ethical dimension to so-called welfare culls of animals. ".. For the meat won't be sold in supermarkets (we consumers are said to be too finicky to buy it). It will be incinerated. Won't the Third World goggle at us in appalled disbelief?"

Bluetongue hits goats in Holland

From ProMed update email
"...In a group of more than 100 goats, 10 have been found to be seriously sick. Up to now, it was not known if goats, infected with BTV-8, would develop a clinical disease.."
The UK would do well to learn from our European neighbours.

We have, also in the Sunday Telegraph, the misleading headline "Bluetongue spreads from cattle to sheep" which suggests that cattle can pass the disease on to sheep. The article fails to explain clearly enough that the only vector is the midge. Bluetongue is not contagious and it is worrying that there are still journalists writing about animal disease in the UK who appear not understand much about it and who are in danger of misleading the public. Sheep can be infected only if an infected female midge feeds on it while in the viraemic stage. They cannot be infected by cattle.

Bluetongue outbreak detected in Denmark

Denmark has had its first case of Bluetongue - in a sheep herd near Sakskobing on the island of Lolland, south of Zealand, the European Commission said today (See Alertnet.) Denmark has reported this first case as an outbreak.
It will be remembered that the UK dithered from the time of its first case on September 22 until - finally - on September 28 Defra, in the person of Fred Landeg, accepted that the UK "had an outbreak".