Disease opens old wounds

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Veterinarian Bill Sykes on his Benalla property. He was working in the UK 20 years ago during a major foot and mouth disease outbreak.

The spectre of the foot and mouth disease outbreak in Indonesia has brought a flood of confronting memories back for Benalla veterinary surgeon Bill Sykes, who worked on a United Kingdom outbreak 20 years ago.

He can still remember the faces and reactions when UK farmers were told their whole herds or flocks had to be slaughtered to curb the spread of the dreaded disease.

The epidemic and the culling program claimed more than six million pigs, sheep and cattle in 2001.

Dr Sykes spent six weeks working for the UK Ministry of Agriculture in the northern Yorkshire area, the background for the James Herriot books documenting the life of a rural vet (All Creatures Great and Small).

“Initially I didn’t want to go because I thought it would be too overwhelming, but I decided to go in May and my initial concerns proved correct,” he said.

“I’ve been involved in the culling and slaughtering of animals before, but this was huge.

“They were some months into the culling when we drove from York into the countryside and we discovered whole valleys without livestock. The nothingness was eerie.

“We found a place that was like an island, because the older farmer had a flock of sheep when there were none on the neighbour’s paddock.”

Dr Sykes recalled the apprehension, grief and pain in the man’s eyes as they discussed whether his flock would be taken out.

A perverse irony for Bill is that he has formed lifelong, long distance relationships with the gracious people on farms where he had to supervise the destruction of their herds or flocks.

Some he helped to save, but many fell victim to the cull.

-Cattle lay dead in a field as Moorland sheep, bottom, are rounded up in pens to be slaughtered after an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in northern Britain, 2001 file photo. (AP Photo/PA, John Giles) Photo by JOHN GILES

Dr Sykes said border controls were important, as Australia’s biggest risk was probably through illegal, undetected meat imports and through fishing boats making contact with our coast.

“The dead virus has been discovered in confiscated meat products.”

Containing the disease threat was about quarantining, early detection and tracing, he said.

Feeding animal products to pigs has been banned in Victoria because of the role in pigs being a multiplier of the disease, but Dr Sykes is not convinced the informal practice, particularly in small herds, has been wiped out.

“It’s a matter of risk and risk management. You can’t have a situation involving the movement of livestock with zero risk.”

Dr Sykes said as well as the authorities having to be on alert, farmers should be vigilant in monitoring health of their livestock and he suggested any unexplained deaths or suspicious symptoms should be reported immediately because of the risk of exotic diseases, not just foot and mouth.

Farmers who had heavily invested in genetics could protect their future by storing the genetics in semen or embryos, he said.

Dr Sykes is farming at Benalla with Wagyu-cross cattle on 200 hectares.