Sick cows 'worn out at two'

THE COW'S head lolls about between nervous jerks and her eyes are wide open and staring. 'They've got fear in their eyes,' the dairy farmer explained. Fear is something he has had to live with himself since realising he might lose his entire herd - and a lifetime's work - to a mysterious illness that could turn out to be the first case of bovine Aids in Britain.

It would be easy to think the cattle are quite ordinary. On closer inspection, however, you can see the pelvic bones protruding through their skin and can sense their nervousness. The calves are even worse: at six months old they are only about half the size they should be.

The farmer did not initially want to talk about the problems that have given him sleepless nights for the past few months. He agreed eventually to an interview on the condition that he and his farm would not be identified. 'We've blown every penny we've got. If we go to the bank and nobody is backing us up saying what it is, how can I say whether it's going to get better?'

He showed me a heifer that should be worth pounds 3,000: 'She's two and a half and looks like a worn out cow of eight and a half years.' Forget the price tag, he said, the animal is next to worthless. Despite eating more than a cow of her age would usually, she puts on no weight. 'There's something that's stopping her working,' he said.

'They've had lots of symptoms of different things,' his wife said. 'They firstly had lots of spots all over the body. We took lots of photographs of them with thick green snot hanging out of their noses. The vets tested in the beginning for IBR - it's like a cow flu - because that's what they thought it was. But there was nothing to say it was that.'

She continued in her quiet voice: 'We have had a lot of abortions. I think 23 out of 30 German heifers were aborted. And then, as each animal calved, it just went downhill. They lost weight, they lost milk, they became very nervous. In the larger animals we found spots and ulcers in their mouths, which travelled up through their noses. When they did post-mortems they found some in the neck. Every animal has got something wrong with it. Not one is as healthy as it should be.

'When the calves were born, if they lived, they were born with very red gums and eventually they got ulcers in their mouths and then spots on their body, which the Ministry says is ringworm. It's a ringworm we've never seen, but there you go. If they (the calves) do live, they never grow. No matter what special rations you make up for them, they just never grow.'

Tests for the bovine immunodeficiency virus - which is related to the human Aids virus - have been positive on two of the eight so far tested.

Scientists are expected to look at the rest of the 50-strong herd within the next few weeks and they believe the final figure for the positives could go up.

The farmer and his wife are convinced that the condition is infectious. 'If it spreads, the Ministry has to put restrictions on the movement of animals,' the wife said. 'We brought some cattle here in November and within a fortnight they had the thick, snotty noses. The calves were worse than the adults.'

Her husband points to the calf being photographed: 'That calf is six months old. It's not much bigger than a dog. It'll go off its legs in a few weeks. They get paralysed from the back end.

'They go through a sad lifeless stage. We think we're winning and then all of a sudden they turn tail on us and go.'

He found one prize animal, a 'foundation' cow to breed from, dead one morning. Tests by veterinary officials could not find a cause of death, making the insurance invalid. 'We were told nothing (by the Ministry vets). We're treated like idiots. We didn't get a bean. What could we tell them?'

'I don't think anyone in the country knows much about BIV. I don't think anybody is allowed to call it what they are calling it,' his wife said.

'They're allowed to call it BIV but there not allowed to call it cow Aids are they? Anytime you mention Aids, everyone goes up about four rungs on the ladder.'

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