Tristan : First Visit of a Vet to Tristan Since 1982
Submitted by Tristan Times (Sarah Glass) 13.03.2009 (Current Article)
Tristan da Cunha received the visit of a vet for the first time since 1982. The vet shares his experiences.
First visit of a vet to Tristan since 1982
Feeling tired after a busy evening’s surgery at my veterinary practice in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire in England, I booted up my computer to see who had emailed that day.
What a pleasant surprise to receive an email from David Morley, the Administrator of Tristan da Cunha, asking if I would be prepared to come to the isolated island in the middle of the South Atlantic to help sort out some veterinary & husbandry problems they had with their livestock.
He had previously asked the department for international development in London for the name of a suitable Vet. They fortunately thought of me, as I had done similar work for them on St Helena, a volcanic island with a bigger population in the South Atlantic, but with similar veterinary problems. I had visited that island six times over the past twenty years, finding few infectious diseases, but significant husbandry problems relating to the poor pastures. Over the years I had introduced artificial insemination, teaching the livestock officers the technique. This had improved the quality of the livestock considerably, but reducing the numbers of cattle on each pasture had been vital to the success of the project. The island became self sufficient in red meat products for the first time in years.
Tristan has a similar population mix to St Helena, and shares the same governor. I had hoped to be invited to Tristan for some time; I have found helping island communities most interesting.
The arrangements for the voyage from Cape Town were continually changing. I had booked air tickets from London, but was told that the ship was delayed by a week. I decided to wait to see what transpired as the date had changed several times in the coarse of a few days. Sure enough the date came back to within a day of the original sailing, so no rebooking was needed.
As I struggled to find the MV Kelso in Cape Town harbour, I passed an ominous nuclear Russian warship several times, finally finding the correct birth for start of the journey. The Kelso was considerably smaller than the RMS St Helena I had been used to travelling on. It is a thirty-year-old Japanese fisheries patrol ship, which has evidently seen better days, but had a certain 70’s charm, which grew on you as the voyage progressed. The weather for the journey was remarkably calm, & she made good progress at 12 knots. I caught my first sighting of Tristan on the morning of the sixth day at sea, a mountain rising out of the sea, with wisps of cloud around its volcanic summit.
The descent down rope ladders to the waiting launch was reminiscent of similar arrivals at St Helena & Ascension island, with the smiling islanders helping with bags, then off to the shore where Dereck Rogers & his daughter Emma were awaiting me by the harbour side.
I was due to stay with Emma & her young family in their modern bungalow, built by Nicky, her husband.
After a day of settling in, Dereck, the islands resident vet got together a number of animals to see. They were mainly collie dogs with various mild ailments. Most of the dogs on Tristan are male collies, used for herding sheep & cattle. No dogs are bred on the island; a previous doctor had neutered the few bitches. There was a lot of male dog posturing as a result, each guarding their patches assiduously.
The islands sheep had been shorn the previous day, but had been left penned up for dipping & for me to cast my eye over. There are around six hundred sheep, mostly kept on the settlement plain, with a small flock up on the base of the volcano, which is situated on the steep cliffs two thousand feet above the village. The ewes looked in fair shape, with a new stockman having more time to change pastures & worm regularly. There had been a reduction in the numbers kept too. This had been a hard fort battle in the council, but finally it had been agreed that the number of breeding ewes be reduced from four to two per inhabitant.
As the dipping took place, it was evident that no protective clothing was being worn despite an organo- phosphorus compound being used. I suggested using a pour on which is much less toxic & equally effective at stopping fly strike.
Soon after we returned to the village, a half grown lamb was bought back to Dereck’s in a collapsed state. It had a fever & could only just stand if picked up, with a tendency to circle. I discussed the possible causes with Dereck & treatment was given, with a poor prognosis. Happily, it was up & eating grass the next day. It is always helpful to start a visit with a miracle cure.
Five Dorpa rams & a Dorpa ewe arrived from South Africa whilst I was on the island. They were fine looking animals, which should improve the quality of lambs produced by the island ewes. I instigated a more rigorous quarantine system for them, so that the lack of infectious diseases on the island can be maintained.
The donkeys were a source of disagreement amongst the islanders. They had been useful before the advent of vehicles, but are no longer needed & were perceived as competing for the already scarce grazing. Some people were for shooting them all, but no one was prepared to do it. A compromise was agreed to ask me to castrate the few males to stop any further increase. This was accomplished by general anaesthetic with relative ease, as they were not difficult to handle.
One female donkey had overgrown misshapen hooves. We caught & sedated her whilst we cut the hooves back to the correct shape.
Cows with fertility problems were presented for examination. A four-year-old heifer, which had not yet become pregnant, was examined.
An ovarian cyst was clearly palpable on its left ovary, which was removed by a hormone injection. An important part of my remit was to demonstrate new techniques to Dereck & his helpers, so he was shown how to find the ovarian cyst. The heifer came into oestrus in three days, as predicted, & subsequently held to the bull. The owner was very pleased, giving me a pair of thick socks, made from wool spun & knitted on the island.
Bullocks are kept on other plateaux around Tristan. These can only be reached by boat, so I set off with Dereck, Nicky & a group of islanders for Sandy Point, where they were going to shoot one belonging to Dereck. The journey there was calm & sunny in the fishing launch. We jumped into a dingy to reach the shore, & jumped off as the surf took the dingy in. Several men set off to find the group of bullocks, whilst Nicky & others set up around a path leading to the beach, which the cattle were used to taking.
Amongst his many other talents, my landlord, Nicky is a very good shot.
He has an ex British Army SLR rifle, which he used to shoot Dereck’s bullock, when a group had been driven up into the area held by the men.
It was dead as it fell, & was skinned, butchered & quartered in forty minutes, the quarters being put in large plastic bags & placed in the dingy for the ride back to the settlement. I could find no signs of disease in the carcass during this process, and it was apparent that the condition of the bullock was considerably better than those at the settlement, with fewer animals competing for the grazing.
On the return, fishing lines were caste from the speeding boat & a series of six large cape mackerel were caught in quick succession as we passed through a shoal. These were filleted & gutted in a quick efficient way on the dockside, as the Antarctic terns hovered overhead, hoping for an occasional piece of fish.
I had a number of the cattle on the pastures near the patches herded up for a closer inspection. One of the questions put to me before I arrived was the reason for such a disparity between individual cows in the herds.
It became apparent that the thin cows either had strong calves suckling them or were old, or occasionally both. Cows need twice the amount of food to produce enough milk for a calf, & the pastures were simply unable to provide this level of nutrition, with the numbers grazing them.
I was asked to attend a council & agricultural committee meeting to discuss my findings. They were generally well received, but it was evident that they would not be as simple to implement.
David Morley and the council sounded pleased with my work generally.
All being well, I will be asked to return in eighteen months time to assess any changes.
It was not all work for me on Tristan. Nicky very kindly guided me up the steep paths to the top of the cliffs in my new thick socks. There were wonderful views of the ponds & albatross chicks, with their parents gliding effortlessly overhead. Only a gentle hiss was heard as they passed a few feet over our heads.
Emma did her best to feed Nicky & I to bursting each night, & was a great host. Their little boy, Ryan, always ready with a smile, was a delight.
I had tried to return this hospitality by helping them with their potato patches on Saturday mornings. These were shared with Dereck & his wife, Hilary. Nicky, Dereck & I would dig up the potatoes as Emma & Hilary selected those for seed & eating. Once the business was done it became a social occasion, with tea, sandwiches & gossip shared between groups of friends.
As the Kelso appeared off the settlement, I awaited my departure with mixed feelings. I was most impressed by the friendship & strong community spirit amongst the islanders & that shown to me. I had been made to feel very welcome. The six weeks on Tristan had flown by.
Steven Cannon for Tristantimes