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Rural Notes 13

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It finally looks as if winter has retreated to recharge her considerable batteries (which must have been pretty flat by the middle of May) and there are at last leaves unfurled on most of the trees and songbirds filling the hedgerows with their melodious chorus.  Butterflies are now evident dancing around early blossoms and even the little lamented wasp has judged it warm enough to put in appearances around the sunnier, wind shaded corners.  The delayed start of spring has been as close as our climate gets to an ‘extreme event’. Gardeners and nature watchers will have marvelled at the simultaneous displays of snowdrops and daffodils- unusual itself in recent years, but unprecedented at the end of April.

However, the cycle of life, even if delayed, must continue and the last few weeks have brought an observable rise in the wildlife movements around the county. I spent a few hours last Saturday walking an untried route from North Berwick to Gullane. With the railway line, the A198 main coastal road, and the smaller Kingston to Fenton Barns road all within vision, and often within earshot, it was a revelation totting up the wildlife I encountered. The ground I covered was wholly arable. This was sad news for the vet, but good news for the walker.

The land on this strip is exceptional , and obviously lends itself to cereal production, but there were vestiges of old stock fences and stock proof hedging and only twenty five years ago there was stock which  the practice looked after on half of the farms I walked over. Sadly modern farming is so technical that there is little scope nowadays for mixed enterprises- the county being increasingly split into arable and stock, where rarely the twain shall meet. However, diminished stock numbers appear to have been replaced wholesale by nature’s bounty. I encountered, at close hand sixteen roe deer, nine hares, two rabbits, a stoat and a healthy smattering of wild pheasants and mallard. I suspect the rabbit to hare ratio is a symptom of disease in the rabbit population, with Viral Haemorrhagic Diarrhoea exacting a heavy toll- much as it was designed to do when it was introduced deliberately some years ago.  Any doubting the demise of the rabbit should ask a golfer; the perennial bane of British golf due to the rabbit’s love of the lush grass on the course, every hole used to bear the scars of constant burrowing ‘new builds’ by rabbits seeking la Dolce Vita. Rules on the various permutations occasioned by rabbit activity interfering with play were known in detail by every amateur hacker. Nowadays, it is all a distant memory, and younger golfers will not have these details at their fingertips.

We have a slightly crude barometer for monitoring wildlife movements as a consequence of being brought victims of road traffic accidents. Concerned members of the public bring in all manner of creatures great and small who have fallen victim to their driving. Deer top the list but a surprising number of duck and hens seem to fall fowl (!) on our bye-ways, and the list we are called to attend ranges from horses to hamsters; (only one of the aforementioned survived). Last week was our busiest of the year in terms of accident attendance. On one night alone, my colleague Sharon Brown was called out to two deer accidents, and one badger. As is often the case, the deer were beyond help. There are lots of reasons for this, and perhaps surprisingly, the economics are not the major factor. Indeed, I recall His Grace, the late Duke of Hamilton offering to fly an injured deer down to Redwings sanctuary in Devon in his private plane after it had been hit close to his home. Had the deer sustained repairable injuries, the generosity of all parties would have seen the creature receive every veterinary attention it needed. In this case, the poor thing had a broken back and was humanely destroyed.

Sharon’s badger however was a triumph. This unfortunate beast benefitted from early intervention as the driver immediately called the police, who were quickly on the scene. They in turn immediately moved the badger (Barry, as they had by now christened home) and thus he was at our hospital in Haddington within minutes of being struck. Sharon diagnosed a head wound, which would be consistent with the tendency for cars to now have faring below the bumpers. Doubtlessly beneficial to aerodynamics, they have led to a lot of low standing animals receiving impact traumas whereas previously they might have slipped beneath the chassis- clearly shocked but unharmed. At any rate, Barry was given treatment to reduce any swelling within the skull and to stabilise blood pressure. He was X-rayed and happily had no skull fractures, so was put into an isolation kennel and sedated to make comfortable for the night. By the morning, he was more in control of his senses and we were able to pass responsibility for his care and future rehabilitation to the SSPCA, who came and collected him.  A recent update suggests he is virtually recovered.

If this tale had a happy ending, it also highlighted a paradox of the sort which infuriate all people of common sense. Most readers will be aware that there is an ugly division of communities in the South West of England where there is acknowledged a severe problem with Tuberculosis in cattle. Cattle farmers there are cursed by TB and a large and lengthy governmental study has been running for many years to establish whether a link exists with badger populations who are suspected of incubating the disease and transmitting it to cattle when they leave their setts and hunt for food. The trial has been expensive and divisive and has resulted in a licenced badger cull being given the go-ahead in specific parishes. Scotland pities the plight of the South West, but somewhat smugly declares itself TB free. Wildlife does not respect boundaries- parish or national. On the basis that the poor badger has taken the blame for the TB down South, I imagined that there would be a robust government policy put in place by Holyrood for TB surveillance amongst our own badgers; badgers who must surely mix with neighbouring badgers in a long chain of potential contact all the way down to Gloucester.  I was staggered to learn that there is no such policy. It seems that Scotland is TB free, and that is that. Is that arrogant, mad or both?

 

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Glen Watson
Partner at Links Vet Group

 

Rural Notes 14

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I have been implored by my colleagues to devote this week’s piece to a topical issue we have been experiencing of late, and warn the county’s dog owners of a recent spate of life threatening illness which has struck in recent weeks. Since the better weather arrived, we have been presented with a dozen cases of gut impaction following ingestion of seaweed. In every case the unfortunate owners have brought their poor dog in to one of our surgeries following an incredibly rapid deterioration from robust health to death’s door within the space of a few hours.

With one exception, the dog involved has not deviated from its normal routine, which involves daily walks along one of our beaches. Beaches along the coast, from Dunbar to Portobello have been implicated, suggesting the problem is likely to be spread far and beyond our own county boundaries.

In all cases, the first signs are characteristic of any upset tummy, including vomiting, diarrhoea and loss of appetite, but this quickly progresses to lethargy, depression and weakness with shaking or trembling at the slightest effort to move. By the time that even the initial vomiting or diarrhoea has started (and that the owners have a symptom displayed which they might notice), the patient is already in a perilous medical condition with dehydration and circulatory shock usually present.

The digestive tract is a magnificent example of nature’s marvels. It is the mechanism by which the higher living organisms nourish themselves; foodstuffs are eaten and end up contained within this organ. However, they need to be digested and then absorbed through the gut wall in order for the body to utilise the nutrients contained within them. The process of digestion involves some very powerful acids, some potent enzymes and some very aggressive and dangerous bacteria. These digestive tools enable the body to break down all manner of materials, but it is imperative that these processes are contained within the long tube which is the gut, and not be able to break free and enter the body itself- which with impunity and disastrous consequences they would start to digest.

So, the digestive tract fulfils two complex roles of breaking down foodtsuffs to their basic building blocks, and of containing this process to the confines of a tube which runs through the body, but doesn’t ever freely interact with it.

The Achilles heel of the complicated digestive process is that if something goes wrong, it does so quickly and gravely. Any imbalance of normal function can compromise the integrity of the whole organ and can give access to the whole body by the dangerous digestive processes. Every safeguard the intestine has can fail and the consequences include acute peritonitis with swiftly tragic consequences.

In the case of the seaweed ingestions presented recently, the major problem has been that parts of the stalks of the plants have been swallowed and have become stuck in the intestine. As the tide recedes and leaves the weed exposed on the sand, it very quickly dehydrates and shrinks. Leaves, as thick as this newspaper, become as thin as a single page, and stems as wide as an arm can appear like a child’s finger. Unfortunately, they tend to be swallowed without adequate chewing, and once in the moist environment of the gut, they respond by swelling and becoming lodged. In short order, the intestinal wall suffers first bruising and then loses its blood supply as the swelling contents exert a tourniquet effect and cut off the blood supply. Inevitably, the wall becomes damaged and sooner rather than later will burst, releasing the digestive juices into the body.

From our perspective, it can be extremely taxing to accurately diagnose the problem. In the early stages, the seaweed may not yet have absorbed enough fluid and become swollen enough for easy identification as a blockage. X-rays are rarely very helpful; as opposed to things like swallowed bones or golf balls, plant material doesn’t really show up on X-rays. In most cases, the diagnosis is made based on the history, which involves recent beach walks, usually off the lead. If caught early, surgery to remove the obstruction can be curative, but this needs to be timely and sadly about a third of affected patients will not survive.

Whilst it is clear that both rapid assessment of suspected cases and rapid surgery where appropriate maximises the chances of a positive outcome, there is still a lot of work to do after the operation, and our nurses are invariably exhausted after delivering round the clock care to their patients for a number of days in early recovery.

What is not so clear is why we seem to be experiencing a current rise in cases. The usual suspects are common inhabitants of our coastline all year round.  Kelp, Mayweed, Bladderwrack and Sea Oak are all implicated. It appears likely that rising sea temperatures encourage their growth, and hence their abundance and availability. It is also the case that warmer drier air conditions means that any weed uncovered between high tides is more likely to dehydrate, thus meaning they are likely to swell to a disproportionate size once rehydrated after being eaten. It also appears likely that summer, with more daylight, enhances their ability to make and store nutrition, and this may make them more tasty to dogs. Ironically, many seaweeds are highly nutritious and have been used as diet staples across many cultures. Many boast medicinal qualities, and a host of seaweed based dietary supplements adorn health shop shelves. All of these however are processed in some way, and not the raw material found by the shore.

"In recent years there has been an alarming incidence of seaweed poisoning in dogs..."

We should consider ourselves lucky in one sense though. In recent years there has been an alarming incidence of seaweed poisoning in dogs, centred on the East Anglian coastline. A species of seaweed known as Sea Chervil appeared to develop the capacity to store toxins and without even becoming stuck, carried sufficient toxin to kill dogs who ate it. On just 2 beaches in a short timescale, seven fatalities were reported from dogs which had eaten some of the weed. It is thought that some plants can acquire toxins present locally and concentrate them within their tissue whilst themselves showing no signs of ill health. The sea has almost limitless exposure to pollution and one of the major worries that climate change oceanologists have relates to the long term implications this may have in some of our worlds dirtier waterways.

I have no desire to sound like a killjoy. One of life’s purest pleasures is walking a dog off its lead, along a quiet beach and watching him or her bound across the sand and play with the waves. It might be prudent however to remember that beached seaweed and dogs do not mix, and if your pet takes any undue interest in some harmless looking fronds you should be immediately intervene and drag them off to safer sands.

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Glen Watson
Partner at Links Vet Group

 

Rural Notes 01

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I have just returned from walking the Cotswold way with James Grant-Suttie, a farming client and friend from North Berwick. The Cotswolds are stunningly beautiful, with chocolate box villages and ancient oak and beech woods surrounding lush pastures, home to a surprisingly large number of healthy looking sheep and cattle.

Most striking though, was that for the entire 104 mile stretch, running the length of the county, the essential nature of the land did not change. It struck us that in East Lothian, we are blessed with an incredibly diverse number of landscapes, and that it would be impossible to walk 100 or so miles through our county without being exposed to a myriad of different views and land uses. From rugged heather moors on the Lammermuirs the land gives over to sheep and cattle pastures on the hillfoots, and then to mixed ground with woods and cereal fields appearing, and onto the largely cereal and potato fields around the River Tyne. North of this, towards the Firth, the land is fantastically mixed with combinations of all of the above and the addition of a myriad of golf courses and huge swathes of stunning dunes and magnificent coastline- sometimes rocky, sometimes cliff bound, and often sandy and expansive.

All these differing vistas are hugely accessible, and countless paths and walkways connect them to one another. We boast some real triumphs of rural access policies and credit must be given to our farmers, landowners and local authority alike, who have worked together to enhance the amenity value our county has for anyone interested in exploring the countryside delights on our doorstep. The John Muir way is a prime example of this, with an ever changing route of nearly 50 miles wending its way from Musselburgh to Cockburnspath. Part of this route is only 50 metres from my desk at home, and I see scores of people ambling along it on a daily basis. They all look very content, although by the time they come within my sight, they will also have spied a couple of pubs in which the opportunity to rest and refresh is only another couple of minutes walking or cycling!

It is of course always great fun to travel somewhere new, but on reflection, there is so much on our doorstep that it does make the adage that it’s even nicer to come home, all the more true. One point of note- we walked all those miles and summited 16 separate peaks and saw not one wind turbine. I cannot speculate on who has the better energy policy, but I think their skyline is less cluttered.

 

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Glen Watson
Partner at Links Vet Group

 

Rural Notes 02

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On my rounds, I frequently pass a series of roadside telegraph poles and often as not, I see a very splendid looking Buzzard perched atop one of them, looking every bit the lord of the manor, surveying the surrounding fields and verges it considers its dominion. Every time I make a sighting, I am reminded of a most extraordinary bird of prey I once examined.

A few years ago, the practice received a call from the Wemyss and March estates office at Gosford. Usually this meant that Tony Falgate was worried about a sickly calf or lamb, but on this day it was the factor Martin Andrews with a bigger headache. The V&A museum in London planned an Ancient Greek sculptures exhibition and Gosford House is home to an invaluable 1st century AD Greek marble sculpted Eagle which they were keen to borrow. The snag was that the insurers required a sculpture expert to confirm the statue could travel. The expert was concerned by a crack visible near the base of the tail, and insisted upon X-rays to establish the depth of the crack and thus the risk. Our mobile X-ray proved itself adaptable. This patient was considerably more co-operative than our usual equine subjects and within hours the images had been sent to the expert who concluded that this bird had flown its perch for the last time. So it never left or was imperilled which was a great relief as I had then learned that it is considered one of the greatest Greek animal sculptures in the world.

Gosford estate is such a treasure trove in so many ways. Although the home herd now resides near Peebles, the grazing remains used by neighbouring farms and includes Zwartbles, stunning black sheep with white noses and feet. The estate hosts wonderful riding stables at Harelaw where mounts ranging from towering Irish Draught horses to wee Shetland ponies cater for riders of all sizes. The Gosford Bothy is an innovative farm shop and café and an inspired way for Bob Webster to promote his Wild Boar which are raised roaming within the Gosford woods. Thousands of free range hens provide many of the local hotels and restaurants with home bred eggs and poultry. The estate developed Craigielaw Golf Club, open to members and visitors alike and boasting some of the best views in the county. They are now adding 20 bedrooms in time for the 2013 Golf Open at Muirfield. The mansion house itself can be hired as a function venue, and is truly stunning. The pleasure gardens behind the house are possibly the prettiest in the county, and welcome visitors to explore their vast secretive acres. All told, the estate provides around 200 jobs.

I find it a relief that in a world where many things appear to change too quickly, there is a local estate which has had the same ownership for nearly 250 years, quietly adapting but thriving, and playing host to a marble eagle almost 2000 years old!

 

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Glen Watson
Partner at Links Vet Group

 

Rural Notes 03

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One of the routes I take to work follows a series of roadside telegraph poles and I reckon I have a better than evens chance of passing a very splendid looking Buzzard perched atop one of them, looking every bit the lord of the manor as he or she surveys the surrounding fields and verges. It is not always the same pole, although some appear more favoured than others, but the entire dominion which this raptor considers his own, runs to almost a mile of roadside. Every time I make a sighting, I am reminded of the largest and most valuable bird of prey I have examined.

A few years ago, the practice received a call from the Wemyss and March estates office. Usually this meant that Tony Falgate was worried about a sickly calf or some such problem, but on this day it was the factor Martin Andrews with a bigger headache. It appeared the V&A museum were exhibiting Ancient Greek sculptures, and Gosford House boasts an extraordinary treasure, in the form of a 1st century AD marble sculpted Eagle. The snag was that the insurers required a certificate from a sculpture expert to confirm the statue was fit to travel. The art expert was concerned by a crack visible in the sculpture near the base of the tail, and insisted upon some X-ray images to establish whether the crack ran deep and presented a risk during transit. Our mobile X-ray was bought with horses in mind, but proved wholly up to the task of adapting. With the patient as still (as a statue!), the X-rays were actually far easier to take than normal, and within hours the images had been sent to the expert who concluded without hesitation that this bird had flown its perch for the last time. So it never did journey to London, and as I later learned that it is considered by some to be the greatest Greek animal sculpture in the world, I am relieved it was never imperilled in transit.

The Gosford estate is such a treasure trove in so many ways. As well as their own home herd, the estate hosts a wonderful riding stables at Harelaw where mounts ranging from towering Irish Draught horses to wee Shetland ponies cater for riders of all sizes through the estate. The Gosford Bothy is a great farm shop and café and an inspired way for Bob Webster to promote his Wild Boar which are all raised within the Gosford woods. There are now free range hens providing many of the local hotels and restaurants with home bred eggs. The estate developed and owns Craigielaw Golf Club, whose restaurant and bar boast some of the best views in the county. They are now adding a 20 room hotel to help ease the county’s hotel bed shortage. The pleasure gardens to the South East of Gosford House are probably the most visually stunning in the county, and visitors are welcome to explore their vast and secretive acres. I think it’s something of a relief that in a world where many things appear to change far too quickly, there is a local estate which has been in the same ownership for nearly 250 years, quietly adapting but thriving, and playing host to a marble eagle almost 2000 years old!

 

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Glen Watson
Partner at Links Vet Group