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18 June 2005

McCracken lights beacon of hope amid veterinary gloom


RURAL AFFAIRS EDITOR FOOT-and-mouth disease will return. Bovine TB will prove extremely difficult to eradicate. Other animal disease threats are looming. Vets are under pressure. Farming is in a state of flux.

But are we downhearted? Not at all, said Dr Bob McCracken, president of the British Veterinary Association, in Edinburgh this week. Given fair treatment and co-operation at all levels vets, farmers and civil servants can counter the threats and give farming a future. Phew! Thank goodness for that, and put the tranquillisers away.

Agriculture has always lived in changing times, McCracken, a cheerful, burly state vet from Northern Ireland, told the annual dinner of the BVA's Scottish division. But these particular changing times are unprecedented and the pace of them is accelerating: "Common agricultural policy reform is being implemented in at least four different ways within the UK.

"Imported food appears to be the preferred option of our policymakers. Endemic diseases are still with us and demand our time and money. We live in a global village where the threat from an epizootic disease - such as foot-and-mouth, avian influenza and West Nile Fever - is ever present and the threat is considerably greater now than it was ten years ago.

"And we live in the UK where farm animal vets are getting fewer and fewer, and older and older, in spite of a record number of new graduates emerging each year." Sorry, nurse, get the tranquillisers out again. Thanks. Please go on, Bob.

Vets are equipped to help farmers be successful, he said. But we must recognise reality. FMD (thousands of farms affected, more than six million animals slaughtered in 2001) will be back.Our actions and plans must reflect that and we - government, farmers and vets in partnership - have three areas of defence.

These are a programme to keep the FMD virus out, especially illegal meat imports; a protocol in place to detect the disease on the first, not the 51st, premises; and a programme to ensure efficient eradication.

Other countries - Australia, Fiji, New Zealand - have kept FMD out successfully. So can we, he said, but it needs a more effective surveillance system and that means vets visiting farms. For at least three years, the gloomy report from Scotland has been of farm-work vets in decline. Now, said McCracken, we can report progress including publication of the Executive's Animal Health and Welfare Strategy and the Animal Health and Welfare Bill.

Land management contracts, in particular, offer a unique opportunity for Scottish beef and sheep farmers to assess animal health and welfare on each farm or croft, and take steps to remedy any problems. More profitable farms will ensure a better future for rural veterinary practices and animal welfare.

The Executive's novel animal health and welfare management programme, which could, nay should, eventually see all livestock holdings get an annual visit from their vet to complete and review a farm health plan was a good thing. An Executive vision had become reality and the European Commission had been persuaded to approve it - no mean feat.

At last, he said, and how true, we are seeing some fruit borne from the never-ending flow of consultation documents. The ball is now in the hands of the veterinary profession, and its clients, to ensure its success.

He was hopeful that common sense would also prevail about changes to veterinary medicines legislation. And soon, because some measures being insisted on by the Department of Trade and Industry could increase all veterinary charges. The BVA, he said, believes a close link must be retained between farm animals, their medicines and their vet.

Tougher action in Scotland against the threat of bovine TB and its possible spread from England and Wales were welcome. But there was still a feeling that the best prevention would be not to bring cattle in at all from TB hot-spots. Right again, Bob, as tools for the control of bovine TB and its potential spread are poor.

No one method will eradicate it, he went on: "Pre-movement or post-movement testing of a single animal or a small group in a herd is better than not testing, but a negative result does not mean that the tested animal is uninfected." If we rely solely on a pre-movement test, he warned, all we do is move infected cattle round the country.

Let's get tough, let's be optimistic, we can do it if we all work together - invigorating stuff for a wet night in June.

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