In Southern NSW, bushfires are a considerable risk to livestock producers and rural communities almost every year. A brief review of the NSW Association of District Veterinarians Conference Proceedings and its predecessors shows that discussions and presentations about involvement in bushfires have been occurring fairly consistently for the past 30-40 years. Now that we have transitioned to Local Land Services in NSW (a replacement of the Rural Lands Protection Board and then Livestock Health and Pest Authority systems), one of the key roles that this organisation is responsible for is welfare and emergencies – be they natural disaster or emergency disease.
Bushfire Response Systems in NSW:
As a veterinarian with the Local Land Services, we are typically contacted to assess and perform humane destruction of livestock that are affected in these events. The typical response structure depending on the size of the fire is detailed in the flowcharts below.
On the Ground Operations:
When Local Land Services personnel are tasked to a bushfire response, we generally attend in teams consisting of a veterinarian and biosecurity officers. Depending on circumstances or information provided, we will attend the property with appropriate firearms, portable yards, 4WD motorbikes and vehicles in order to be fully capable of running the assessment operation without the assistance of the landholder.
It is my experience that the landholders are often still fighting the fire and usually are members of the local fire brigades. They are also considerably distressed by the situation they find themselves in, so being able to have a conversation with them about what we will be doing but that they do not have to stay and be part of it, is often of some comfort to them.
With the fires I have attended, sheep flocks were often not able to be mustered to an established set of yards due to the severity of their burns. So we typically used portable yards to create temporary holding pens to assess them. In assessing burnt livestock, the question is always where to draw the line between recovery of the animal from the burns or the requirement for humane destruction. This work often involves large numbers of distressed stock and also owners and farm workers who are equally distressed. In the field, even members of the assessment and destruction team can feel the pressures of making these decisions in such a confronting environment. In my view, the final result has to consider:
With these criteria in mind, the assessment of stock focuses on:
|Severely burnt, unable to rise||Usually total body burns, head swollen, legs swollen and skin stiff, feet sloughing or about to||Immediate destruction|
|Severely burnt, but standing||Total body burns, head swollen, often appear blind, stand on own, skin of legs is swollen and leathery||Immediate destruction|
|Feet - all four blistered||Signs of moisture due to ruptured blisters and in some cases lift already occurring||Immediate destruction|
|Feet – varying||Some feet affected with blister formation, animal is mobile||Destroy / Salvage / Hospital pen???|
|Udder / Prepuce / Inguinal area||Tissue is swollen, has a blanched appearance, cracking or splitting of skin||Immediate destruction|
|Udder / Prepuce / Inguinal area||Some swelling, red and enflamed but no blanching||Salvage / Hospital pen / return to paddock??|
|Scrotum / Prepuce – Rams||Blanching of the scrotum, swelling of the prepuce, feet affected||Immediate destruction|
|Scrotum / Prepuce – Rams||Reddened, not swollen, feet ok||Hospital pen / return to paddock??|
|Anal area / Vulva||Blanched and swollen over both anus and vulva||Immediate destruction|
|Anal area / Vulva||Reddened and minimal area – sides of anal, tip of vulva||Salvage/ Hospital pen / Return to paddock???|
There are many good publications that have been developed by various state governments about how to assess burnt livestock and the criteria to be used. I have created the table above to express some of the variations that you may be faced with that do not fall into these ‘easy’ categories. It is these cases - the ones that could be salvaged, put into a hospital pen or even returned to a suitable paddock - that require consideration of the other three criteria mentioned previously to determine the most appropriate course of action.
Their future potential to meet their intended purpose:
In consideration of the burns to vulva, anus, udder, prepuce and scrotum, I use this criteria as a guide. Having seen some burns a few weeks later, and the effect of the scarring on the opening of the anus or vulva has led me to conclude that some of these animals may be salvageable but would no longer make a successful breeding ewe. Similarly if both teats affected are blanched (eg. White tips at the end), then the likelihood of blind teats is high. In our current production systems where we push for maximum fertility and growth rate, this would not make an ideal ewe.
A similar consideration is given to damaged prepuce and / or scrotum – will the scarring that is likely to occur once the burn heals affect the functionality of those organs. The prepucial opening is very small so any circatrix scarring here may well impair the ability of the penis to be extended with all the complications – increased risk of blowfly strike; potential for uremia if complete blockage etc.
The environmental factors affecting management in the short-mid term:
Any of these animals recovering from burns will require optimal feed and ongoing monitoring for at least the next 2-3 weeks. If a property has been significantly burnt to the point that there is limited feed stores left, watering systems or infrastructure has been significantly affected and the ability to provide shelter, medical care and limited movement to travel for feed and water cannot be provided, then a hospital pen situation may well be unrealistic.
The personal well being of the producer involved:
The affected producers that I have dealt with in the past 11 years as a district veterinarian rarely have the will to manage these animals to the level of care they require. They have many competing priorities (ie. Repairs to fences, maintaining stock that have survived unscathed in a now difficult feed environment, arranging agistment, repairs to watering systems, insurance claims demands etc). At the same time, they are still grieving and traumatised by the effects of the fire and going out to a hospital pen and having to continually euthanize animals in the ongoing weeks is detrimental to them.
One of my collegues wrote in his paper “I believe the reasonable success rate in the first case would be unusual, and unless an owner was exceptionally keen to battle with a hospital mob of valuable sheep in good condition, I would recommend in future that such an exercise not be attempted” (Hart, 1986). I have spoken with owners who were burnt out for a second time in 30 years and they also support this statement – they would not do a hospital pen again. For the few animals saved, there was significant pain for those animals and also for the owner in having to watch over them before coming to the decision to euthanize.
As many others have found, cattle tend to escape fires reasonably well. It is only in rare circumstances that they cannot break through a fence to free themselves. However, I have had to assess cattle in this situation and I use the same criteria.
On the option of salvage, I have not had great success with this for sheep. If you can get them out within the first day, then it may be possible to successfully do. I have found logistically this is difficult.
It has been considered in the case of cattle and was successful where the issue was mainly one of foot burns and needing to get cattle off the property due to lack of feed and the cattle were nearly of slaughter weights at the time.
When horses are affected by fires along with significant numbers of cattle and sheep, I tend to consider that a private veterinarian would be better served to deal with these. Horses are more of a companion animal and the methods Local Land Services use for humane destruction would be less tolerable to horse owners in this instance. Also there is the real possibility that the horse owner will have the frame of mind and resources to provide good nursing care for an animal with non-life threatening burns.