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IT was always on the cards that livestock farmers in Scotland would not avoid Schmallenberg disease, a midge-spread infection that causes abortions in sheep and cattle and/or deformed foetuses.

It was also almost as drearily predictable that the first recorded case of Schmallenberg infection in Scotland, a disease unknown in Britain until last year, would be found in an ‘imported’ animal.

And last week so it was: a ram bought from Shropshire and taken to Orkney was found to have the infection. The ram’s new owner was commended by NFU Scotland president Nigel Miller for having his new purchase tested, although his neighbours would probably have preferred – I’m guessing here – that he hadn’t brought the ram to the island at all.

We move into difficult territory by questioning free trade, free choice, it’s a free country and so on. But if it makes sense not to import animals from infected areas in mainland Europe surely it also makes sense not to “import” from infected areas of the UK?

But what am I saying? Bovine TB cases have already been found in Scotland this year in cattle “imported” from known TB hotspots in England and there have been cases of other infectious diseases being found in cattle imported from Europe.

In a modern livestock breeding industry where the technology may be beyond me but I can grasp the essentials, surely – at its simplest – semen can be used in a breeding programme rather than imported animals with their risk of bringing in disease? Or more advanced methods such as embryo transfer and its variations?

Animals that might have been in contact with the infected ram are being tested.

The hope is that the relatively cold weather of October will have prevented Schmallenberg infection from spreading.

In the meantime, Mr Miller said the case emphasised the need for all livestock farmers bringing stock in from areas at risk from the disease to test them.

He can say that again – and he might. But what effect will that have on breeders determined to buy the animals they want from wherever that might be? I think we know.

At least Blackface sheep breeders tend to keep their buying and selling within one country, with the occasional exception from Northern Ireland or north of England, quite often in such a tight circle that it’s hard to spot where buying stops and selling begins.

But as I probably said last year and the year before that, life’s too short to worry about what the select circle of big money breeders do. Suffice to say that in one of the worst and wettest years for farming in a century, there was a new breed record of £90,000 paid for a Blackface ram recently and £60,000 for its twin brother.

The record price ram was bought by a consortium of three farming businesses, the twin by a consortium of five businesses – good examples of co-operation that might be put to better use.

Only a guess, but I suspect that ideas on how the first monitor farm in Peeblesshire can maximise its potential won’t include buying an expensive ram. Kate and Ed Rowell are tenant farmers of 1,800 acres at Hundleshope, on the Haystoun estate, just south of Peebles, in partnership with Mrs Rowell’s parents Ann and John Brown.

They have 75 beef cows and 750 ewes on hard land that runs up to 2,200ft and are under no illusions about becoming a monitor farm, an idea introduced some years ago from New Zealand that has caught on in Scotland. It entails opening up details of a farm’s physical and financial performance to interested farmers at a series of meetings over at least three years.

The idea is that full and frank exchanges, ideas and criticism can help the monitor farm improve, but also benefit all farmers who come to the meetings by forcing them to think about how efficient and effective their own physical performance, costs and returns are in similar situations.

It can only be nerve racking, but Kate Rowell – a qualified vet as well as a member of a family that has held the Hundleshope tenancy for 150 years – said: “To us it sounded like a really positive opportunity. As a vet you have to undertake continuous professional development, but in farming that doesn’t exist. Becoming a monitor farm is a step in that direction and we hope it will give us an opportunity to run our business better.”

One comparison they are already involved in is between rams chosen by Kate on estimated breeding value (EBV) and those chosen by her husband “by eye”. She has not said so far what the results of that comparison have been. But details could be asked for, similar to a freedom of information request, by members of the monitor farm group who sign up for the first meeting on November 7.

I couldn’t help wondering, idly of course, what response there would be to a freedom of information request to a record-breaking consortium of Blackface ram breeders as to how they decided the animal was worth £90,000.

The answer, I fancy, would be succinct.

 

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