Friday, 28 January 2011

Tuberculosis testing in cattle

This posting has absolutely nothing to do with sheep. Tuberculosis is a notifiable disease, should any farmer suspect he has an animal suffering from TB he is bound by law to notify the necessary authorities - DEFRA. However, in this instance we are talking about cattle, as sheep, suprisingly enough (and horses), are resistant to the disease - amazing to think there is something sheep are less likely to suffer from!

So why am I writing about TB when it has absolutely nothing to do with sheep? Well due to the fact that the majority of the farms in Tarset also run cattle I thought it might be of interest to some to know about the regulations these farmers have to adhere to.

All cattle within the British Isles have to undergo regular tuberculosis testing. The parish of Tarset and Greystead is a 'clean' area and so undergoes their testing every four years - which just so happens to be this year.

So what is TB? Well it is a disease of the respiratory tract spread by a bacteria and passed from animal to animal but will also cross to different species, therefore it is possible for cattle to be infected by badgers, which is a long standing issue which preys on many farmers minds. Badgers carry the TB virus in this country but they are also a protected species. Many years of fighting beaurocracy still seems to be drawing blanks even though a promise of badger culls in the worst infected areas of the country was finally given. Badger numbers have understandably been on the increase since they received their protected species status in 1973.

Cattle can easily pick up the TB bacterium by grazing in areas where badgers frequent, even if you keep your cattle away from areas where the badger actually lives they do tend to wander around quite a lot (badgers that is) and so in a densely badger populated area it would be almost impossible to prevent cattle from having access with badgers. Even when housed for the winter cattle are still not safe from the badger as they will often enter cattle sheds and yards to forage, eating the same food as the cattle have access to.

We know that badgers carry TB and are the greatest threat to contaminating cattle, which are the most susceptible domesticated species to the bacteria, but deer, alpacas, goats even cats and dogs can be infected as can humans. It is the threat to the latter species which causes the disease to be notifiable under British law, the threat to humans.

There are a few strains of TB and in actual fact only half a percent of all people affected in this country have been infected by bovine TB - an interesting statistic! If meat is properly cooked and any milk consumed is pasteurised then the only way anyone could be infected with bovine TB is if infected cattle with full blown TB sneezed or coughed over them and they inhaled the bacteria. Which brings some to question why we still battle on with government enforced cattle testing.

For the time being at least cattle testing is still on the agenda for cattle farmers in this country and as already said this is the time for our parish to have it's cattle tests.

The vets inform the farmers that their test is due and a date is set. Winter time is preferrable for many as their cattle are mainly all housed and so easier to handle. Held together in sheds rather than running all over the farm. Cattle are not always co-operative when it comes to moving them and bringing them into the steading (farm yard), they tend to know something is up and can be wound up to high dough (over excited) before the proceedings get underway. During the winter months and housed they are already 'cornered', makes life a little bit easier!

Within this parish, due to it being a four yearly test it is only necessary to test animals over two years of age (there is an odd minor exception but I don't want to complicate things). Each animal is walked into a cattle crush for ease of working with and operator/livestock safety. A cattle crush is a device designed to hold the animal as stationary as possible and as comfortably as possible, it has an unfortunate name, it most definitely does not crush the animal, although it will often restrain them by the neck in a guillotine type fashion. This may sound inhumane but believe you me it is anything but, years of improvements have produced excellent and safe cattle handling facilities for both man and beast.

Once held secure the vet reads the ear tag number. All cattle in the UK are registered (a legal requirement) and all carry tags in their ears with the required registration data. The tag number of the beast is recorded along with it's age and sex. Access to the neck is necessary as the hair is shaved off two small areas one a distance above the other. The skin at the bare areas is then measured with calipers and the measurements recorded prior to the sites being injected with a laboratory produced TB bacteria. Avian TB as well as bovine TB is injected, the avian is injected in the top area with the bovine further below. Once all the cattle have been dealt with the vet will depart and return in 3 days.

Should an animal be carrying Bovine TB it will react to the injection it was given, the avian injection is given to enable the vet to compare the reactions to the two different forms of TB. When the vet returns to re check the herd he again measures the skin and records the measurements if necessary. It is not unusual for there to be raised areas at the injection sites, however, should the lower area be more pronounced than the higher site (the bovine react more than the avian) then the beast will be classed as being inconclusive and a further test will have to be run in 60 days time.

All in all it is a quite a stressful time for both the farmer and his cattle. The farmer has the concerns that maybe his cattle could be carrying TB, there are not bound to be any signs as it can lie dormant for the whole duration of the animals life, causing no problems to anyone, not even infectious to the other cattle, so a farmer would never know until a test proved positive.

As for the cattle? Well they find themselves being handled twice in one week which can find them getting wound up. Cattle don't always take kindly to seeing strangers, they don't always appreciate being put back through the cattle crush when their memories are still fresh from the incidences of three days ago. It can get them worked up and stressed which in some weather conditions could always lead to them going down with pneumonia, the last thing any farmer would want.

Due to the poor weather conditions at the end of last year many of the cattle tests in this area found themselves postponed until a later date. Even if the snow hadn't caused a problem the ice did. Icy concrete yards are not ideal for moving cattle on, their cloven hooves struggle to purchase in such conditions and it wouldn't have been safe for their welfare or those handling them to work under such conditions. Therefore many of the tests are now taking place which sees the better half helping out many farmers to get their cattle forward for the vets inspection.

Are the tests proving to be clear? Well most are, there has apparently been one inconclusive result which will see the vet return to that farm in March to test that one beast again. Hopefully all will be well and there will be no reaction on the second test. However, should their be a reaction again the farmer will find himself held under strict movement regulations, further tests of the whole herd and more stress. Any animal which is deemed to be a reactor is automatically sent for slaughter, the farmer receives a compensatory payment from the government (which is rarely the value of the animal).

There are many countries which have managed to eradicate bovine TB by testing and culling as our country does, however, it is highly unlikely that the problem will ever be eradicated in the UK as long as the badgers carry the disease. I was told by the vet that it would be highly unlikely TB would kill many cattle, they were more likely to die of other causes or be naturally culled out of the herd by age than end up having full blown TB and die of it. So why test then? Presumably to keep those who work with cattle safe from catching it, as to the normal person on the street who cooks their meat and drinks pasteurised milk bovine TB ought not to be a threat.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Frosty days

Life in Tarset is frosty. Not the frosty, cold shouldered type of frosty, y'know, the anti-social don't want to speak to you sort of frosty. No, it's natures frostiness, cold, minus figures on the thermometer, frosty.

Why should Shep be surprised that after the cold snowy spell and the hard frosts endured on the run up to Christmas that life in Tarset is still frosty?? Well, due in main to the fact that Shep and the other half disappeared for the first fortnight in January, we left the snow and frost behind and departed for warmer climes. Camping, followed by budget back packers accommodation in a country where the temperatures ranged from the high 20's to mid 30's made me forget about the cold, until our return and we find that little has changed!!

That is grossly untrue. Much has changed. The snow has all disappeared (an odd little bit can still be seen in a sheltered spot), we returned to flooding, rain and mild conditions, enough rain to see the North Tyne river burst its banks and have those that know better than I say it was the worst it has been since Kielder Dam was built. Still 'jet lagged' after 36 hours of travelling and five different flights the floods were of little concern to me, I seemed to be in some sort of comatose state, which I now regret as there were some good photo opportunities.

So by the time Shep regrouped and felt like she belonged on this planet it had once again turned frosty, -7 and -10 being recorded at the back door over the last couple of days. Brr.. my tan is fading rapidly!!
Posted by Picasa
I'm obviously slow in coming to my senses at the moment, this frosty photo was taken at lunch time, does show how much rind there was still remaining at midday but I'm sure the picture would have been far more dramatic earlier in the day. These cold days are giving many hours of sunshine during the day, although it struggles to burn the frost off, especially in the more sheltered areas.
Posted by Picasa
Posted by Picasa
The above photos were also taken heading into the afternoon, moss and grasses growing on a wall which were slowly loosing their frosty burden.

'Tis the time of year for fluke dosing of sheep, some have already dosed as their tups came off, others have yet to start. It depends on how badly your ground is affected with the fluke parasite and how your sheep are looking. Some will try to hold off until scanning time, those who scan later wont want to wait that long as their ewes could lose condition rapidly if they have a fluke burden. All in all there will be many sheep dosed in the forthcoming weeks.
Posted by Picasa
The cold days are leaving us with some beautiful sunsets. How does the saying go? "Red sky at night Shepherds delight"? - sounds alright to me, we all appreciate a spell of settled healthy weather.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Winter birds

My poor mother.

Imagine the scene - Christmas day and her daughter walks in, only to exclaim "wow, look at the birds on your bird table! Must go and get the camera" I think I did manage to give her a hug and wish her a Merry Christmas - didn't I? Anyhow, I'm sure she's well used to me and my strange ways by now.

What an array of birds though, I was quite envious I can tell you.
Posted by Picasa
Posted by Picasa
The above are a blue tit and a coal tit, both of which frequent Shep's garden but not quite as close to the kitchen window as these were.
Posted by Picasa
A great tit, again to be found in Shep's garden.
Posted by Picasa
Goldfinches are a rare sight in Shep's garden and so pretty it's a shame they don't like where I live.
Posted by Picasa
These were the Daddy of them all, long tailed tits. Now Shep has been aware this back end that small flocks of very noisy long tailed tits do alight in the rowan at the back of the house, it is very much a fleeting visit before they take to the air once again and set off as a flock with their undulating flight pattern, chirping away as they go. Oh how I wanted a photo of these, I was well chuffed I can tell you!
Posted by Picasa
I can still remember as a young kid seeing these little birds for the first time (I could still take you to the exact spot), I was so excited to see them, there is something almost magical about them and here I was able to get a snapshot of them through Mams kitchen window. How exciting was that?

I made it up to Mam, she understands (I think) or ought I say she's very understanding!
Posted by Picasa
She too gets visits from the gregarious and greedy starlings which does tend to upset her somewhat (maybe that's where I get it from)

Anyhow, what a grand start to Christmas day, not only did I get over to enjoy Christmas with the family, I got to photograph the birds at Mams bird table and sneaked a few pigs in blankets (sausages wrapped in bacon) which she unwittingly laid on the bench beside me whilst I was snapping away. I also now know what to get her for a present next year - bird feed!!

Tuesday, 4 January 2011


One of the few formulas my memory can recall from those far distant chemistry lessons, H20, good old water. Water is a great friend and a poor enemy, as are so many of our natural resources.

One thing for sure, none of us can survive without water and that includes the livestock which we look after.

The recent cold snap caused problems for stock having access to water. Those which were outdoors may have been fortunate enough to access a natural water course, although they soon began to freeze over. Water troughs in fields soon froze and getting them running was not always possible.

As we all know snow is frozen water and when the worst comes to the worst the stock will eat snow. Have you ever melted a bucket full of snow? If you have you'll be aware that a bucket full of snow when melted will only give you an inch or two of water.

I learnt last year that for all sheep, especially, will survive by consuming snow it is actually quite hard on them due to the energy they burn digesting the frozen stuff, a fact I was unaware of but then it's quite true that you're never too old to learn. It is actually a fact which makes a lot of sense when thought about logically.

Many animals over the past weeks have had to survive by eating snow, some have carried water out to their stock but this is really impractical and never ending, there has been plenty to do without adding to the work load, after all, there has been a natural supply available as back up in the form of snow, albeit not an ideal solution.

Unfortunately those animals housed inside are dependant on a water supply. In Tarset it is mainly cattle which find themselves housed throughout the winter and cattle do drink a fair slurp of water. Some find smaller water troughs are a great help against freezing as the demand for water from the cattle sees the troughs being used more frequently therefore the water is running more regularly and so has less chance of freezing.

Body heat can also be a great help, cattle obviously generate heat and this may also help keep the supplies from freezing.

Unfortunately for many this year the low temperatures caused the troughs to freeze, plummeting night temperatures with freezing day temperatures were all too much for the cattle sheds and many hours were spent with boiled kettles and heaters trying to get the water away and running. Some failed and found their cattle in dire need of water.

Cattle drink in gallons not pints, it all depends on their size, whether they are milking (nursing a calf)or not, what they are fed on - silage does contain some moisture as does grass, hay is a dry fodder as is cattle cake, but regardless of these factors they will still be consuming gallons rather than pints, it would be an awful lot of water to carry from the house!

Other options are put into action when the water supply fails in cattle sheds, they find themselves being let out to reach a natural water course to quench their thirst.
Posted by Picasa
Unfortunately even the natural water courses can fall foul to the weather. The Tarset Burn above is frozen from edge to edge and it is to be the only water supply to some cattle which are housed near it.
Posted by Picasa
Men at work - nothing like a spot of good old hard labour, not smashing stones but smashing ice, trying to break through the frozen surface of the river to allow the cattle access to water.
Posted by Picasa
Not paper thin ice at that either, pretty solid stuff it was, so solid in fact that it would take the weight of not only the men but also the cattle.
Posted by Picasa
The cattle were only too pleased to be able to access some water, they gamboled their way out of their shed and ran down to the water side with not so much as a please or a thank you and started slurping to their hearts content.
Posted by Picasa
The steam rising off their backs gives an indication as to how cold it was, so cold in fact that the batteries in my camera were suffering and I was struggling to take photos. The whole escapade took three quarters of an hour, from ice being broken to cattle getting their fill and being rehoused. Three quarters of an hour out of the farmers day as he had to stand guard to prevent his animals from escaping below a bridge across the frozen water. Time well spent tho' as without water animals will eventually die.

The hard frosts have abated for the time being, the burn looks more as it ought and life is a little bit easier. More frost is forecast, we'll just have to hope it isn't too hard and is slightly more sociable.