November 2015: What the Victorians can teach us about biosecurity

We have a small but well-stocked library at AHDB headquarters in Stoneleigh, which I like to browse through from time to time during my lunch break. The library is a legacy of the Meat and Livestock Commission, and holds stocks of items going back more than 100 years.

I’ve always enjoyed looking through the historical livestock text books, and some of the veterinary conditions appear to be relatively quaint by today’s standards. For example, plethora, quinsey, blind staggers or gangrenous angina.

Although these diseases all sound wonderfully poetic, they were equally disturbing and provided as much concern to the average pig farmer as the more modern (acronym heavy) era of swine dysentry (SD), porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) and African swine fever (ASF).

While it’s easy to mock the rather pompous overtones in these old text books, it’s astonishing to look at what marked similarities there are with modern farming compared to historic practices. If it were not for the scale and the odd decorative weather vane, the Victorian model piggery looks remarkably similar to our 21st century units. This goes to show that while the technology may have moved on, the animal still has the same basic needs.

This got me thinking about how our ancestors managed to maintain health on their units, especially when there were little to no effective medications available that didn’t involve the hideous sounding mercurial ointment or the downright hazardous, hyposulphate of soda.

The fact was that disease limited the size of production to a large extent. However, where our industrialist forbearers may have had the advantage on us, was their use of biosecurity.

By biosecurity, I’m not inferring that the average Edwardian or Victorian understood the disease process or, in fact, considered disease in the same way at all. However, good on-farm management and the “cleanliness is next to godliness” philosophy they had ensured that, in the main, they could produce livestock without antibiotics.
Fortunately, in 2015 we have much more advanced production methods and are now more efficient at producing safe and wholesome pork. However, I think we still need to consider biosecurity more carefully.

For this reason, my team is involved in developing a Biosecurity Hazard Perception Tool – much like a theory driving test – to help demonstrate the fundamental principles of biosecurity to all staff on pig farms. The tool is due to be launched later on this year, and will allow on-farm training for all employees. There are specific modules reflecting both outdoor and indoor production; these are designed to be short, quick and easy to fit into a tea break, lunchtime or a rainy day.

I’m hoping that, with the aid of this tool, we can move towards a better understanding of biosecurity and its effect on productivity, disease prevention and profit. In this instance, it’s not a case of reinventing the wheel, it’s more a step “back to the future”.

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About The Author

Martin Smith joined AHDB Pork in September 2014 and is the organisation’s veterinary team manager. He specialises in animal and public health, disease prevention and animal welfare.