FMD – The Duke of Westminster’s Tale

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It is well known that many types of livestock can be treated for and cured of Foot and Mouth Disease. The classic tale of the Duke of Westminster, whose cattle herd was nursed to health by dedicated staff, carries an important lesson for modern farming.

The tale begins with an epidemic of FMD in this country that lasted 1922-1924. The British government had recently re-confirmed a policy of mass slaughter, following recent doubts from a Chief Scientist about Britain’s ability, at the time, to produce and use vaccines effectively. At the same time, countries with endemic presence of the disease took a different line. India, for instance, recognised the natural resistance to Foot and Mouth Disease lay with their indigenous livestock breeds.

The 2nd Duke of Westminster had a herd of Dairy Shorthorn at his Eaton Hall estate in Cheshire, which was diagnosed as having Foot and Mouth Disease during November 1923. He appealed to the Ministry of Agriculture to allow his herd to be exempted from the slaughter. They eventually agreed to this single case, stipulating that all costs and expenses had to be met by him, and that their isolation standards must be adhered to. No compensation was on offer for his lost animals. At the time they were only offering the market value to farmers anyway, and this was never going to be sufficient recompense for the loss of a pedigree herd of cattle.

The herd manager, Henry Pakenham Hamilton, and vets, quickly had to learn from old cowmen what they had done before the days of mass culling. Recommended procedures from the Ministry were too complicated. They began caring for the animals with intensive diligence, bathing wounds and syringing the mouth and feet with salty water. Any burst ulcers on the feet were coated in Stokholm Tar, but mouth ulcers cleared up naturally.

They kept the cattle sheds clear of cow pats and urine which could infect open sores. Septic feet were the biggest problem and so pro-active prevention of re-infection turned out to be the key. Within a few weeks the cattle overcame the disease. Several of the cured animals went on to win prizes at The Royal Show the following summer!

Hamilton wrote a pamphlet about their methods and decades later, when another FMD disaster struck in 1967 he shared the details of the curative process and even used the word “easy” to describe it! Hamilton pointed out that early intervention, sufficient labour, hygiene and good stockmanship were the essential factors.

Unfortunately again the government did not change strategy, and on 21st November 1967, the BBC tragically reported: “Yesterday, 60 of the Duke of Westminster’s 300-strong Eaton herd of pedigree Dairy Shorthorns on one of his farms near Chester were slaughtered after the disease was confirmed there. The herd dates back to 1880, and included current show champions.”

There are countless other examples we can learn from. Albert Howard, one of the founders of the Soil Association, would let his cows graze next to FMD cattle in Africa and they never got it. He put it down to good nutrition. German farmers traditionally took a sack, wiped the mouth of the infected cow, and then infected the rest of their herd so they all had immunity.

Sadly, even today the beureaucrats at Defra refuse to listen to even the best scientific opinions that recommend vaccination should be readily used as a tool against FMD. They do not seem to trust farmers to be able to look after their animals and to be watchful for signs of disease.

We know they don’t care about the personal impact on rural communities and farmers, and they obviously don’t care about the slaughter of innocent animals as collateral damage. Isn’t it more about protecting political relationships and the big meat traders? Or is it perhaps no more than ignorance and a fear of what they just don’t understand?

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