by the Rambler Ulster Star 19/10/2001
I AM surprised, and of course pleased, to present still another scholarly dissertation on the animal diseases of FMD, Murrain, red water, etc.
This time, an erudite Welsh lady has provided backing for my late father's theory that goats eat noxious weeds which are harmful to other cattle. Very nice!
The majority of readers may already have had enough of the topic, but my friend Harry, the retired vet, can be relied upon to read more about it.
I am writing in response to Rambler's interesting letter about murrain.
Murrain was originally an imprecise term used to describe any plague or epidemic affecting any species, but this usage is now archaic, and it is indeed now used to refer more specifically to an epidemic affecting cattle, and in particular to Foot and Mouth disease (see Chamber's Dictionary).
Red water fever (babesiosis) is a potentially fatal parasitic disease of cattle caused by a protozoan (single-celled) organism (babesia bigemina) carried by ticks in certain areas, and transmitted to cattle when bitten by a tick vector. It principally affects bought-in cattle, as homebred stock develop a natural immunity. The blood cells of infected cattle break down, causing red-coloured urine, hence the name.
Maybe the goats would be useful for eating the scrubby plants and long grasses in which ticks often shelter, so helping to eliminate the ticks' habitat, reduce the number of ticks, and thus lessen the chances of cattle getting infected. In this sense, Rambler's father's theory would be right to some extent.
Incidentally, billy goats are also sometimes kept with herds of cows in the (unfounded) hope that they might prevent contagious abortion due to brucellosis. They cannot prevent brucellosis, but may prevent abortion due to ergot poisoning (see David MacKenzie: 'Goat Husbandry', Faber and Faber, 1967, pages 96-97), by selectively grazing ergot-infested grass-heads, so leaving less of them for the cattle to eat.
Ergot has various toxic effects in both humans and livestock (Cooper and Johnson are not convinced that it causes abortion in cattle). Milk yield in cattle is often drastically reduced. Ergot also has nervous effects (among other toxins, it contains lysergic acid, as found in the illegal drug LSD).
Ergotism in humans used to be known as St Anthony's fire, as the saint was supposed to have suffered from it.
I hope this information will be useful to Rambler and interesting to your readers, and will generate further discussion.
Jinny Thomas, Beaumaris, Gwynedd, North Wales.