Earlier this year, most commentators on the farming and rural scene, including me, looked back for what we hoped would be the last time at the foot and mouth epidemic and horror of 2001.
The general conclusion by commentators, and the vets and scientists who attended a recent conference at the Moredun Animal Disease Research Centre, Edinburgh, was that some lessons had been learned, if not necessarily all that needed to be.
The possibility of vaccinating sheep, cattle and pigs against the foot and mouth virus rather than slaughter control was thought about and discussed more frequently, and with less anger and bitterness, than 10 years ago.
That is hardly surprising. Ten years ago, when foot and mouth was sweeping through Dumfries and Galloway, Cumbria, the Borders and Northumberland, plus of course Devon and several other areas, no one had time or patience to be rational about vaccination as a possible control method.
Slaughter of infected animals and those thought to be at immediate risk, as fast as possible, was seen as the only effective method of stopping the spread.
There were advocates for vaccination, who pointed out that foot and mouth may be painful and affect an animal’s growth and production, but is not fatal. They were overruled on the grounds that vaccination could not be done quickly enough to prevent the disease, widespread by the time it was first identified at the slaughterhouse in Cheale, spreading ever more rapidly.
When it was pointed out that the Dutch had used vaccination to control foot and mouth, the counter-argument was that the vaccinated animals had later been slaughtered when the immediate danger was past. So why wait?
Another reason, also argued in Britain, was that farmers’ main market, that is the supermarkets, would not buy meat or products from vaccinated animals because of probable consumer resistance. The belief that humans can be infected by foot and mouth disease was one of the many rumours and conspiracy theories at the time.
As anyone who attended open meetings at the time on how to deal with foot and mouth, will remember, some of the exchanges on the cull and vaccination were heated. The contiguous cull, which introduced the slaughter of animals round infected areas as a buffer-zone, not only massively increased the final slaughter total to well over six million in the UK, but greatly increased the anger and bitterness of those who said vaccination would work.
I’ve always worked on the principle that hindsight is a wonderful thing and that decisions, especially those that need to be taken quickly, can only be taken with the information available at the time.
That applies to everything from an investment in new machinery, selling crops on forward contract, whether to spray a particular field, when to sell lambs, or whether to go to the football on a given day.
That’s why, 10 years ago, I believed that slaughter was the best way to control foot and mouth. Given the information at the time I still think that was correct. But, 10 years on, and the reason I’m writing about foot and mouth again, new joint research by scientists at Edinburgh University and the Institute for Animal Health, Pirbright, indicates that vaccination might work.
The work suggests that subclinical infection is not a worry, that animals are not secret carriers of the virus. Infected animals are only dangerous to others when showing symptoms, the characteristic pustules and sores on mouths and cloven hooves.
Even more significantly, they are infective for less than two days, not the four to eight days previously thought.
The researchers suggest, in a detailed review of their work published two weeks ago, that these findings put a different complexion on any control methods. They believe that close monitoring of livestock and vaccination would prevent the spread of the virus. They also suggest a simple test kit could be developed for use on farms.
Slaughter of the first animals to show symptoms might still be necessary, but slaughter on the scale of 2001 would never again be seen, they suggest, because vaccination could start straight away.
I’m glad to hear that, because no one who had animals slaughtered, saw the initial on-farm funeral pyres or the later pits of rotting carcases, or spoke to farmers who had seen their stock slaughtered, will ever forget what 2001 in some parts of the countryside was like and we all hope that we will never see anything like it again.
However, at least one scientist offered a word of caution. It was that while minimum slaughter and vaccination might work on small-scale livestock farms he was more doubtful about large-scale operations, that is, the thousands of sheep and/or hundreds of cattle on one farm in the Borders and throughout much of Scotland and the north of England.
I hope he’s wrong.