15 June 2001

Fight is on to save Teeswater genes

RITA Braithwaites work as Teeswater Sheepbreeders society secretary usually takes no more than a couple of hours a week. But since the foot-and-mouth outbreak, her workload has more than tripled as she tries to keep up with losses among flocks around the country.

"It is a very delicate situation, almost as if a member of the family has died," she said. "Many people who have had stock culled have been bombarded by telephone calls of sympathy and in some cases, by crank callers. Some of them have said this has added to the stress, so I try to keep calls to a minimum where I can. But I also need to know if any Teeswater flocks have been culled."

So far, the breed has remained largely unaffected and Mrs Braithwaite is co-ordinating with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust in its efforts to collect semen and eggs from top breeding stock in risk-free zones.

The recent outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Kirby Mal-zeard, North Yorkshire, is threatening four important Teeswater sheep flocks, which are now very close to areas where livestock are being culled. But Mrs Braithwaite said the Society had been relieved to be told of MAFFs plans to save Teeswater and other minority sheep flocks from contiguous culls. As long as the sheep are blood-tested and proved to be clear of the disease, they will be exempt from culling, provided they are isolated and looked after by someone not in contact with other livestock.

"The Teeswater is not a rare breed, it is a minority breed, but we only have 80 registered flock owners around the country," said Mrs Braithwaite. "A large flock to us is about 10 ewes so we must preserve our bloodlines if at all possible. It would be a tragedy if we lost our gene bank."

Mrs Braithwaite and her husband, John, are caretakers of a large country estate and until last year farmed 400 Mules for the owner, as well as catering for shooting parties throughout the winter. The landlord has since decided to develop the pheasant shoot and has let out 81ha (200 acres) of grazing so there are now just 24 Teeswater and Texel ewes at Wodencroft Farm, Cother-stone, County Durham.

"At the moment, foot-and-mouth has been confirmed only two miles from here and we are about 500 metres from a D restriction notice," she said. "That means we are having to lamb the flock on the rented grazing because the owner is not allowed to move them back home."

She has been concerned that MAFF is not giving farmers enough information. "We have had several letters explaining disinfection procedures and what precautions we should take but there has been no practical advice as to what we should do if our sheep contract the disease," she said. "It is worrying because it adds to the feeling of helplessness and we would like to at least feel mentally prepared as to what might happen and what restrictions will apply.

"A lot of the information I am getting is by word of mouth and it seems that a lot depends on which vet arrives. Some have blood-tested the animals first but others have decided to cull flocks straight away.

"MAFF has an ideal opportunity to pass on information through the website but it does not seem to be taking advantage of that. The farmers weekly website (Fwi) has been a real lifeline in keeping me up to date with what is going on."

She also fears that the changes in movement restrictions announced by MAFF will seriously affect minority and rare breed flock owners. "A lot of our members keep two or three different breeds," she explained. "If they buy sheep at one sale, they will not be allowed to attend any other sales for 21 days and that will make it very difficult to bring in new stock as many of the sales take place at around the same time. It could even put people off helping to build up the numbers of endangered breeds."

Her work as a teacher and judge of flower arranging has also been put on hold because many of her classes are held in rural areas.

Wendy Owen