10 August 2001

Tragedy of rare breeds toll in the wake of F&M

Foot-and-mouth disease has

claimed the lives of millions

of farm animals, and the

death toll has included

irreplaceable genetic pools

of some of our most

treasured native breeds.

Jeremy Hunt counts the

cost of the crisis

THE dark, wet days of March saw foot-and-mouth at its height as the disease raged mercilessly through some of Britains finest stock-rearing counties. The owners of thousands of herds and flocks have their own stories to tell. Whether their animals were commercial or pedigree, all were precious.

Most farmers who lost pedigree stock of the popular breeds are already looking ahead and planning a speedy return at the earliest opportunity. But among the millions of cattle and sheep that met such an untimely end, there were gems that can never be replaced.

They may not all have qualified for recognition on the Rare Breed Survival Trusts endangered list, but they highlighted the unique diversity of Britains livestock heritage – something that was never given a second thought under MAFFs culling policy.

Many farmers are still armed with pressure hoses as they relentlessly spray every inch of their buildings to keep free of infection. But with time to ponder as they purge and cleanse, many deeply regret the ease with which they surrendered their stock.

During the desperate weeks when new F&M cases were numbering more than 50 a day, media attention rightly focused on the plight of the Herdwick flocks of the Lake District fells. But while hill shepherds were struggling to save their sheep from the white-overalled slaughtermen, elsewhere other equally rare "commercial" breeds were facing destruction.

Without attracting headlines, the early weeks of spring 2001 saw the decimation of breeds such as Galloway cattle and South Country Cheviot sheep; Rough Fell sheep came dangerously close to being wiped out as mass culling crept ever closer to the south Cumbrian fells; and near Carlisle, one of the UKs most renowned herds of pure British Friesians was slaughtered, obliterating a wealth of cow families that can never be replaced.

And, despite gallant efforts fortified by organisations like the National Trust, Lakeland hill farmers saw 30,000 of their Herdwick sheep killed – one-third of the entire population of this breed.

The dire consequences of F&M and the speed with which it spread left no time to make plans to save genetics that were unique to particular breeds.

But things must change. Already vigorous efforts are being made to ensure that gene banks are established to protect breeds whose low numbers of breeding stock puts them at serious risk should another disease devastate our farming industry.

F&M has left many breeders and breed societies counting the cost. Tragic though the losses have been, some say it could have been worse. There is some relief that at least no breed was totally annihilated, even though such a threat came frighteningly close.

Alex McDonald, secretary of the Galloway Cattle Society in Castle Douglas, has a list of herds slaughtered during the epidemic in south-west Scotland. It makes sombre reading.

"We were certainly hit very hard," he says. "Around 700 head of Galloway cattle – including some in the Devon outbreak – were slaughtered. To some that may not seem like a lot, but included in that figure are several of the breeds top herds."

Among the most widely known herds to have been slaughtered was the Grange herd of the Biggar family of Castle Douglas. It was the oldest in the breed societys herd book and although it was registered by Jim Biggars grandfather in 1846, the family had owned Galloway cattle long before then.

Destruction

The Glenkiln herd owned by Henry Keswick at Castle Douglas had been at the forefront of the breed, with stock carrying this prefix well-known winners at Christmas primestock shows such as Smithfield and the Scottish Winter Fair.

"These are the type of cattle that were taking the Galloway into a new era," says Mr McDonald.

The Romesbeoch Galloway herd of Dumfriesshire breeder Jim Ross – a herd that has dominated the Galloway breed in recent years – was slaughtered as part of a 3km cull. Over the past decade, the herd had taken the breed societys Herd of the Year award at least five times.

And the list goes on, including the noted Glenturk and Dalswinton herds.

"I have already been dealing with enquiries from pedigree breeders who are trying to locate replacement stock to mirror the genetics that have been lost," says Mr McDonald.

"Thats certainly encouraging, but as far as commercial herds are concerned, a lot will depend on whether or not hill cow support is still there after the new government sets to work on the future of farming. Every effort must be made to keep herds of hill cows as a viable enterprise."

The south-west Scotland outbreak posed a big threat to the South Country Cheviot, which lost one-third of the breeds entire population. There are only 86 registered breeders, and 20 flocks were slaughtered during the F&M crisis, taking out more than 20,000 sheep.

Isobel McVittie, secretary of the Cheviot Sheep Society, says some of the biggest and best-known flocks were lost.

"It has been a tragedy for the breed. It could be eight years before we can replace these sheep," she says.

Across the border in Cumbria Rough Fell sheep breeders narrowly missed a major loss of stock during the height of the spring epidemic.

There are 150 registered flocks of Rough Fell sheep. All breeders have now received a questionnaire from the breed society to assess exactly what stock remains.

Rough Fell breeder John Jackson of Newbiggin-on-Lune, near Tebay, says: "With a numerically small breed like the Rough Fell, a disaster like this proves how vulnerable we are."

Geoff Brown, secretary of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association, is also undertaking an audit of flocks to assess the initial loss of an estimated 30,000 sheep, including many thousands of away-wintered Herdwick hoggs that were caught on lowland grazings as contiguous culls.

"As well as the impact on hill farmers incomes, the breeds gene pool has been badly depleted," says Mr Brown. "The breed has been involved in scrapie testing but now we have lost many of the tups that had been selected during the scheme. All that work has been wasted."

The Herdwick has been the focal point of the Heritage Gene Bank set up by Prof Diana Bowles at York University. Initially created to collect semen and embryos from breeds such as Herdwick and Rough Fell, which bore the full brunt of the outbreak in early spring, the gene bank could, subject to funding, extend its remit to cover other at-risk sheep breeds.

Ambitious scheme

Another ambitious scheme, and one that deserves the industrys full support, has been launched by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, which aims to raise £1.5m to create a gene bank for all livestock breeds.

No endangered breed of farm livestock has become extinct since the RBST was set up in the early 1970s, but the trust is concerned that several breeds are now under threat – a situation worsened by the F&M outbreak.

Some of the 63 breeds under the RBSTs jurisdiction had populations of only a hundred or so at the end of last year.

"Its a race against time," says the RBSTs Richard Lutwyche. "There are six breeds of sheep identified as being most at risk by the spread of F&M. Semen is being collected, frozen and stored from uninfected rams, but its cost the trust £25,000."

Sheep breeds such as the Teeswater, Ryeland and Grey-faced Dartmoor are among those being monitored by the trust.

And it isnt just rare breeds that have been affected irrevocably. Although Shetland sheep are no longer on the RBSTs list, the flock of 160 head run by Lenice Bell at Waterfoot, near Lockerbie, was culled under the 3km ruling after a long battle to save it.

The flock, which included the breeds strongest gene pool for scrapie resistance, was reduced by MAFF to just 15 animals, which are now being monitored closely.

For many years the RBST has maintained a gene bank of the rarest breeds of cattle and pigs, but it is now aware this had become a "time capsule". The intention is to broaden the remit of the gene bank to include all breeds and ensure it is kept up to date.

Several Dairy Shorthorn herds fell victim to F&M, among them the Ireby herd founded by the Ritson family at Ireby Hall, near Carlisle, over 150 years ago.

Not far away, at Kirkbride, disaster struck the famous Marshside British Friesian herd run by Willie and Eileen Bell and their sons Richard and Edward.

The Bells lost more than 300 head, wiping out 40 years dedicated to breeding some of the most highly productive – herd average 8500kg – British Friesians in the UK.

"We had some outstanding pure British Friesian cow families that have been lost for ever but we have some semen and hope we can buy back some of our female lines," says Willie Bell. "It will like going back 40 years and starting all over again."

While the desolation over lost stock is tempered by a resolution to rebuild herds and flocks, one Cumbria farmer summed up the feeling of all F&M victims: "Many of us will re-stock, but it will be a long time before our herds and flocks will be back up to the same standards.

"We have not just lost animals, we have lost something that came from generations of stockmanship and breeding. Compensation can never replace the time and dedication that F&M has stolen from us."