The Saddest Story Ever Told

As a deer hunter and farmer I am bereft at this awful story. Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) has been slowly spreading through deer populations across the USA. As yet there are no reported cases in Australia I am aware of, but old sheep farmers such as ourselves will be aware of its similarity to the Scrapie Epidemic during the 1930s which necessitated over one-third of Australia’s sheep being slaughtered to eliminate it. Ever since the Australian Quarantine Service (AQIS) has had to maintain the strictest protocols to keep it out from countries where it is endemic (such as eg in Europe).

Elk infected with CWD

Our Finnsheep for example had to endure 7 years in completely closed quarantine on Wardang Island SA followed by a further 7 years at Hay NSW. The disease can ‘hide’ for generations only to pop up again. AQIS has now developed a testing regime involving genetically engineered mice so that all the testing/quarantine can be carried out in the laboratory within about 15 months. It is now much cheaper to import sheep breeds – if you are so interested. I know there are a number of breeds I would have liked to have access to (eg Icelandic) but I doubt I will be starting any other agricultural enterprises at my age!

CWD (like Scrapie) is a prion disease similar to ‘Mad Cow’ Disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob in humans. It is 100% fatal, and unless checked would lead to species extinction. No vaccine is even possible. For twenty years we spent over $10,000 pa testing for Johnes disease, a similar wasting disease (but caused by a bacterium) in order to ensure that the sheep we sold were 100% free of it. Money we will never recoup in sales, but such costs are just part of the immense public service farmers do to protect the public and provide them with cheap, safe food and other agricultural products. Now, fortunately we are able to administer a simple $2 per head vaccine on a once-in-a-lifetiime basis. Only yesterday we had clients here from the the Gulf Emirates buying sheep which we could guarantee are disease free and representing the world’s best Finnsheep genetics.

You can see from the photo that the poor animals suffer horribly. There are sound reasons why we have strict immigration and quarantine laws. It is not hard to imagine that a similar disease might have put paid to the Neanderthals or the Denisovans, our giant ‘cousin’ species which are (mysteriously) no more. Both were fairly obviously smarter and stronger than we are, so strictly speaking you would expect it would be them who are common and us who are extinct. Such diseases can be grim reapers.

Hunters in the US and Canada have a serious problem. It would be well-nigh impossible to eradicate the disease from the wild populations now that it has spread over tens of States. Meat testing is available to prevent its spread to hunters but obviously much greater care with carcass handling will be necessary to ensure you are not infected.

Here in Australia we managed to eliminate Srapie and Foot and Mouth Disease and to prevent the introduction of so many other ‘nasties’ – Lyme Disease for example. I note however that a small child recently died horribly from Rabies contracted from a bat bite (There is a vaccine – I have had it). Nonetheless, as you can see such terrible things can spontaneously arise, so we need to be ever vigilant. If you see animals behaving strangely in the bush and suspect that they might be infected with something unusual, you need to report it.

There is a sheep breed known as Booroola Merinos which are also hyper-fertile like Finnsheep except their fertility is carried on a singe gene so that in the normal course of events only half their progeny will have it. By enormously careful breeding the SA Dept of Ag managed to create a line of them which had two copies of the gene so that all their progeny would carry it. Some sheep have a gene which confers an immunity to Scrapie. You can imagine engineering sheep to have two copies of this gene and so eliminating the disease in sheep (in Europe for example).

In wild elk with CWD it would be more difficult but you would expect the animals which had such an immunity to have superior survival characteristics – which is no doubt why the animal in the photo above carries an ear tag ie so that scientists can learn about the disease, even though it seems awfully cruel to keep it alive. Scientists have engineered sterile mosquitoes in much the same way in order to eliminate malaria. Perhaps this dread disease (above) can be controlled before it causes shocking ecological damage.

Many of us dream of one day drawing a block for the wapiti (elk) ballot on NZ’s South Island. It would be so much nicer to see the elk in this condition. I’m sure you will agree:


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