A talk given on November 13th 2001 by Lawrence Alderson of Rare Breeds International to an audience of interested farmers and stock owners.

The impact of Foot and Mouth on the Rare Breeds of Britain, and the implications of the Animal Health (amendment ) bill.

In recent years we have had a series of animal health problems which have had a quite devastating effect on the livestock population throughout the country, culminating in the BSE and foot and mouth disease earlier this year, and it looks as though we are now approaching further problems with scrapie. The foot and mouth outbreak had significant effects both economically and genetically. As far as the economic impact is concerned, a total cost of £20 billion has already been mentioned, which makes it very difficult to justify the policy of control by slaughter. When we're talking about the policy of mass slaughter, we are looking at something in excess of ten million animals slaughtered. There have been many figures used; DEFRA favour small figures, others use large figures, but I think that ten million animals would be a figure that most informed observers could agree on fairly well in that context. The economic argument is very difficult indeed to justify.

But I want to look particularly at the genetic impact, and the first thing I would say is that it was not the impact of the disease that has been the real problem, but rather the impact of the control measures. That is what has caused the massive loss of genetic material that we had in this country. That slaughter policy, if we look at it in broad terms, has resulted in about 20% of the breeding stock of this country being lost. That is a huge proportion. It actually fits in quite well, I gather, with government policy to reduce national stock numbers, but that is not how it should be determined. A 20% loss of breeding population, and the valuable genetic material that goes with it, is a very serious matter indeed, especially in the context of further losses which are likely as a result of culling under the scrapie programme.

If we look at the loss in certain categories of livestock we can break them down into three groups which are recognised by Rare Breeds International. There are the numerically scarce breeds and some of those have been hit very hard. Breeds such as the Whitefaced Woodland sheep, Hill Radnor sheep and Belted Galloway cattle up in the Cumbrian area. The two sheep breeds have lost at least a quarter, and maybe 30% of their numbers. The Belted Galloways have lost nearer 40%. Such huge losses would be difficult to sustain in a popular breed; they are more drastic in a rare breed. In other breeds that are important not because they are necessarily very rare but because they are very distinctive - an equally important factor - we find similar large losses. A breed with which I have been involved, British Milksheep, which is a very high-performance breed, has sustained a 50% loss. Shetland sheep, which have a very high level of CLA in their meat with positive benefits for human health, have losses approaching 20%. In the third category are breeds with very special adaptation to a specific environment and conditions, and again there have been huge losses. In Herdwick sheep and Rough Fell sheep which are very precisely adapted to their environment, we are looking at losses of 35-40%. It isn't just that the loss is so great; it is that the loss is so great in those breeds that have special genetic importance.

We do not know what impact these losses will have in the future. We don't know because the particular qualities that those breeds possessed could well have played a more important part in the future than they have in the past, especially in the context the increasing emphasis placed on animal welfare and quality of products. The reduction of their genetic potential by the slaughter policy imposed to control recent diseases means that the potential isn't there to be exploited in the future.

But that's the current situation. What worries me more is the potential situation. And that's where we come on to the potential damage of the Animal Health bill. This moves us to a different level. We are no longer talking about slaughtering infected animals, or animals on contiguous premises, or supposedly dangerous contacts. We now are talking about slaughtering whatever the government decrees should be slaughtered. That is a totally new ball game. If that line is followed and applied specifically to scrapie, there are certain breeds where the loss could be 100%; not 40% or 50%. It could be 100% in some breeds.

This raises the whole question of the method of control. Vaccination must assume a position of greater importance. If a slaughter policy is followed - and that includes infected and non-infected animals - the genetic material in slaughtered animals is lost. It is gone for ever; you can't get it back. The advantage of a vaccination policy is that there is no loss of life, and the genetic material in valuable and endangered breeds is conserved for future use. This is where we must consider the value to future generations when we determine the method of disease control that should be applied.

Some sheep breeds, especially the Northern Short-Tailed breeds which are a particular group, have a very high percentage of genotypes that are considered susceptible to scrapie. In some breeds 100% of animals are vulnerable to scrapie, and in others it is 80-100%. In contrast the longwool breeds are maybe 0-20% susceptible, and there is a huge difference between different groups of breeds. The Northern Short-Tailed breeds are a very important group of sheep. I mentioned Shetland sheep earlier, and they belong to this group. If we apply the potential implementation of the Animal Health bill as it stands, any animal with a genotype that is more susceptible to scrapie - which effectively means all but the resistant ARR genotype - can be slaughtered, we are going to lose some breeds completely. I am extremely concerned about this because of the potential value and distinctiveness of those breeds.

Rare Breeds International has been making representations on behalf of threatened breeds in both London and in Brussels. It is very difficult to obtain a reasonable response. My impression is that there is greater recognition of the wider implications in Brussels. Certainly the responses we have had from Brussels have been much more positive. Even the responses from the OIE have shown some willingness to review the situation. So that is where we're directing much of our effort at the present time. At the same time we also maintain a dialogue with Whitehall to focus attention on susceptible breeds, especially the Northern Short-Tailed sheep, with regard to scrapie, and on the other genetically important breeds as far as foot and mouth is concerned. We have been pressing for vaccination against foot and mouth since the beginning of the outbreak, as it seems to us the only sensible way to conserve the genetic material that we have. If we go down the line that is proposed by the Animal Health bill, some breeds of British Livestock are likely to become extinct in the not too far distant future. alderson@clltd.demon.co.uk

A member of the audience raised the question of Strategy for Sustainable development - A Better Quality of Life - the importance of bio-diversity. She said, "This policy is supposed to influence government policy right down to local Councils and it's obviously just a waste of paper."
Mr Alderson commented: "That is important because it is a Convention that has been signed by this government and is quite contrary to a lot of things we have been discussing today." A quite lengthy internet search of documents from The Environment Agency and elsewhere show no commitment to bio-diversity mentioned anywhere as far as we can see. There is, however, a link to a document requesting the name of the Government official designated to attend the Convention of Biological Diversity that has just taken place in Montreal from the 11-16th November 2001. It would be interesting to know who the official from the UK was.

In response to a question from a member of the audience regarding the scrapie testing programme for rare breeds, Mr Alderson said: "There is an opportunity at present to have animals in certain breeds tested free of charge. We think the list has been developed from questionable assumptions and should include some different breeds, but nevertheless we would encourage owners to have their animals tested. However, I would recommend you most strongly to have the results sent only to yourself. Do not give authority for them to be sent to any third party, otherwise you may find that policies based on the results are imposed on you in the future to your detriment."

Mr Alderson: "There is one genotype that is considered resistant and that is ARR, but what is not properly known yet is whether ARR is resistant or whether it is masking scrapie with a very long incubation period. If that is the case, then the science is as bad as everything else."

See also on this website the talk given at the RBI/EAAP/FAO meeting in Budapest on 23 August 2001 :

Foot-and-Mouth Disease in the United Kingdom 2001; its cause, course, control and consequences