'Aids' dairy farm shunned
Steve Connor is the Science Editor of The Independent and i. He has won many awards for his journalism, including five-times winner of the prestigious British science writers’ award; the David Perlman Award of the American Geophysical Union; four times highly commended as specialist journalist of the year in the UK Press Awards; UK health journalist of the year and a special merit award of the European School of Oncology for his investigations into the tobacco industry. He has a degree in zoology from the University of Oxford and has a special interest in genetics and medical science, human evolution and origins, climate change and the environment.
Sunday 13 February 1994
Slaughtermen refused to handle a cow he had to have destroyed; a firm supplying cattle feed would not visit his farm; the Milk Marketing Board declined to take his milk for human consumption and a local pig farmer rejected his milk because of the bad publicity.
Tim Blything, who is the fifth generation of his family to run Green Lane Farm in Kelsall, suffered what was probably the most traumatic week in its 200-year history.
After an article in last week's Independent on Sunday, which revealed that scientists had found antibodies for BIV in some of his sick cattle, Mr Blything - whom we did not identify - was contacted by local journalists who said they had been given his name by officials at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
Local and national newspapers and television highlighted the Blything family's plight and word spread that government scientists were investigating a possible link between the cattle illnesses on the farm and the bovine version of the Aids virus.
The Milk Marketing Board said on Friday it was refusing to allow milk from the farm to be used for human consumption despite assurances to the Commons from Nicholas Soames, the junior agriculture minister, that there was no risk to humans who eat meat or drink the milk of cattle infected with BIV.
A spokeswoman for the board said it was a 'commercial decision to send the milk for pig feed for another week. We have to reassure anyone who buys the milk from us'. However, the board later rang Mr Blything to say it would not even be able to collect milk for pig feed as the pig farmer had decided not to accept it.
A sick cow that had become lame had to be destroyed in the presence of a vet last Wednesday, Mr Blything said. 'Men in the slaughterhouse said 'As soon as that cow comes in, we're walking off the yard'.'
Mr Blything's 13-year-old son, Simon, was taking the situation particularly badly, he said. 'He was there when we had to shoot the cow. I've told him we might be able to save some of the herd. But it's a lot for a lad to hold, isn't it?'
Some veterinary officials have suggested to Mr Blything that the range of illnesses affecting his herd - respiratory infections, skin disorders, ulcers and neurological degeneration - could be the result of poor feeding rather than BIV. This was reiterated by Mr Soames: 'Experimental studies indicate that the virus has little effect on cattle, the only symptoms being a transient rise in temperature which soon passes.'
However, Britain's leading expert on BIV, Dr Joe Brownlie of the Institute for Animal Health in Berkshire, said that not enough was known about BIV to be sure that it could not cause the illnesses seen in Mr Blything's herd. 'The experimental studies have not continued for more than two years. Many of these viruses have an incubation time longer than this.'
Mr Blything's vet, Neil Howie, believes that any feeding problem was a 'consequence and not the cause' of the illness. 'There is something odd and unusual in that herd - you can't get away from that.'
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