Thursday, 30 October 2008

Local Resilience – Bluetongue

This is a blog entrance I have thought about a lot; when was the right time to talk about bluetongue, what it meant to us and to the local farming community in general and did it mean anything to people visiting the area.

Bluetongue arrived in Eastern Asturias in late June and I suspected the first symptoms on one of our sheep at the beginning of August. It’s a viral disease which only affects ruminants (no danger to humans what so ever) and is transmitted by a midge which arrived in Europe in recent years (supposedly due to climate change). There are different serotypes of bluetongue, but they all affect sheep quite seriously.

As part of the Asturian governments preventative plan against Bluetongue our flock was vaccinated by the vets of the Ministry of Agriculture in April, as was the entire sheep population of Eastern Asturias. So when sheep started to die from it in July there were a lot of questions being asked, and in particular “why are sheep which have been vaccinated against bluetongue dying from it?”

For me (and most farmers) there has been a huge mismanagement and with holding of information on the situation. We still don’t know if the sheep were vaccinated against the wrong serotype, if the vaccine came defective from the laboratory which produced it, or if the vaccine had been stored incorrectly by the Ministry of Agriculture at some stage.

The consequences of this bad management by the Minister of Agriculture have had a devastating affect on the farmers in the area. If the distress for the farmers seeing their animals suffer and die wasn’t enough, there was a complete lack of understanding towards the problem from the agricultural ministry. There was mountains of paper work (associated with the disease) which the farmers were suppose to fill out, but not even the local agricultural office could help them with the bureaucracy or the necessary procedures, as they didn’t know what to do, as there was no clear directive coming from above.

In total we lost 6 sheep to bluetongue (about 10% of the flock) and I reckon at least another 10 showed symptoms but pulled through. We were lucky because mortality rates in sheep were generally very much higher. Our neighbouring farmer lost 70% of his herd and another close farm lost 50%. Since talking to the local vets it appears as though the Xalda sheep (the indigenous breed we keep) appear to be more resilient to the virus. They might be small sheep but they are hardier and better adapted to difficult conditions.

I must say I found it a very difficult time when the disease hit our farm, feeling so upset for our animals which were suffering and at the same time helpless and frustrated by the ineffectiveness of the system and the inability of being able to do anything to improove the situation. I have the utmost sympathy for the farmers in the area whose livelihoods have been affected.

A white xalda sheep being vaccinated.
A couple of weeks ago the second vaccination program was completed on our farm, (and in the whole of Asturias) and along with lower temperatures there are now no sheep showing symptoms. Let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope the vaccines work for next year.

The only good thing for me, which came about from all the problems associated with bluetongue, was that I felt the need to “escape” and that’s when I started doing a lot of walking in the mountains again, and I am so glad I have!

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Hotel Posada del Valle is a small hotel in Asturias Northern Spain surrounded by its own organic farm and where we are passionate about organic farming, food, and sustainable livelihoods. In this Blog those of us who live and work at Hotel Posada del Valle open a door to share with all of you who are interested in what we are doing.