What a fabulous late summer and early autumn! This time last year, Michael had over 300 cows and calves housed and heavier fields were badly poached. Fast forward 12 months and cattle and sheep are still enjoying good quality summer grass and ground conditions remain excellent, at least for now!

Prices for beef and sheep remain strong, although prices of winter inputs, which seemed manageable only a few weeks ago, are causing concern. In fact, supply chains around the world are now breaking down, as labour issues, energy prices and commercial opportunism really take hold.

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The recent spike in gas prices in the UK is a case in point. Lower generation of electricity from wind and hydro over the summer due to the dry, quiet weather has led to the need to start up coal and gas fired power generation capacity as our nuclear generating capability stutters. The spot price for electricity has gone through the roof to record highs. The Russians, sensing an opportunity, have been flexing their muscles to ensure that their new Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany, (allowing them to hold the EU to ransom in the future), is completed.

With these energy prices spiking uncontrollably, despite the hot air being spouted by politicians to try and demonstrate they have a grip of this mess, (which of course they don’t), CF have temporarily shut two fertiliser plants in the UK.

Undoubtedly, there will be commercial opportunism involved in this decision as well, and God only knows where UK fertiliser prices may end up as a result, but that is for another day. But the most immediate consequence of this shut down is to starve the UK, especially the food sector, of vital CO2 supplies. The impacts of this have been well publicised and I suspect the UK government will have no choice but financially incentivise CF to restart production.

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Scandalous really, but what this clearly demonstrates is how fragile the 'just in time' supply chains we have created through globalisation really are. And how little politicians and the general public know, or indeed care, as long as, in the case of our industry, their bellies are full of cheap food from any country in the world 365 days a year.

I’ve told this story before, but 20 years ago I remember meeting Margaret Beckett (the then Secretary of State for Agriculture in England) with the usual cast of thousands in the Cabinet Office. There were leaders from various multiple retailers in the room as well as representatives from other parts of the food supply chain.

I challenged her pretty forcefully on the issue of food security after the FMD disaster, and how it should be a priority for Government. Her reply gave a unique insight into what the political and governing classes both south of the border and in Scotland actually thought – and still think now – about our role in the world. I quote “Jim, Government doesn’t need to worry about food security any more. Supermarkets like Tesco and Sainsbury [in the room] deal with that.”

I, (and others), challenged this ridiculous statement by pointing out that multiple retailers maybe controlled and manipulated supply chains, but they neither grew, reared, slaughtered nor processed anything.

And that is still the case 20 years later as driver shortages, other labour shortages and now CO2 issues have created one of the biggest crises to face this country in generations. Isn’t it ironic that even vegetarians can’t crow about the nasty production of meat and exploitation of animals as the cause of this, as vegetable and fruit production and packaging will be just as badly hit!

Surely now it must be as plain as the nose on your face, even to the most hapless politicians and incompetent officials, that food security and local supply chains for food and other manufactured goods actually matter to the wellbeing of the whole population. The primary role of political leaders is to ensure the population is safe and fed, not, as some seem to think, pump out endless press releases.

So it is more important than ever that we implement an agricultural policy in Scotland, in fact an economic policy in Scotland, that actually addresses these issues.

In agriculture we have already demonstrated this can be done in a climate friendly way which also gives us more control of local supply chains. And it is now clear that the alternative of shrinking local production and importing the balance is no longer viable or reliable, never mind the impact of offshoring the emissions associated with food imports.

This winter promises to be the most challenging we have faced since the financial crash. But, as in every crisis, there will be opportunities to show that Scottish farmers can step up to the plate.

British sheep farmers also need to step up as we are all facing what I believe is the biggest animal welfare and sheep health crisis I have experienced in my lifetime. No flock, no breed is immune and no stigma should be attached to this.

We need to admit that the problem exists because it is now at epidemic proportions, to talk about it openly and without fear and come up with an urgent action plan to deal with it. I am talking about Ovine Pulmonary Adenocarcinoma (OPA) or Jaagsiekte, effectively a highly contagious form of lung cancer in sheep. The Jaagsiekte sheep retrovirus infects cells in the lungs of sheep causing tumours and eventual death. And not a pleasant death at that.

It was first described over 200 years ago in South Africa, hence the name from Afrikaans, and there is still no cure and no effective test. Scanning the lungs can be used and some flock owners are already doing this, but at best it gives a snapshot in time of the state of the sheep’s lungs and only detects tumours or fluid when it is too late.

The period between infection and the appearance of clinical signs for this highly infectious transmissible disease may be several months or years and many sheep with the disease never display the symptoms in their lifetimes but can still act as spreaders. Sound familiar?

In an outbreak of OPA in Iceland in the 1930s, 30-50% of animals in affected flocks were lost within 18 months of diagnosis of their first clinical case. Iceland is now free of OPA after a rigorous slaughter policy in the 1950s.

OPA has been recorded in animals from two months to 11 years old, but it is most common between two and four-years-old. There is no doubt that OPA is now endemic in many flocks in the UK and mortality rates are likely to be 5-10%. Often these animals are treated for pneumonia-type symptoms, but don’t respond or simply die of what used to be described as 'pine.'

Hill breeds, like Blackies, are much worse for it than they used to be partly because of how they are looked after. More often in fields or hill enclosures, or even housed rather than roaming the hills. Fed at troughs or with snackers and often offered licks, this all leads to the potential for easier nose to nose or saliva/nasal fluid transmission. It can also transfer from ewe to lamb but it isn’t clear if that is through the placenta, colostrum or just close contact.

Either way, I raise this serious issue because we need to sort it out. Sheila Voas and her team, the wonderful team at Moredun, vets, the NSA, breed societies and others need to come up with a coherent plan to find a blood test for OPA in the first instance because scanning results are too late. And secondly, we need some serious funding thrown at research to find a vaccine. This should be a notifiable disease and we need to act now. The animal welfare issue of death from OPA and the economic losses make it the single most important issue the sheep sector in the UK (actually, globally) currently faces. Far worse than sheep scab and other diseases where government has stepped in.

And if these points alone can’t persuade us that a 'call to arms' is really necessary, think hard about what we have faced and continue to face over the last 18 months. We still don’t know where Covid came from but a mutation from an animal to humans is probable. There is absolutely no evidence of transmissability of OPA from sheep to humans in the last 200 years. So let’s take this opportunity to ensure we sort this dreadful disease out before that could ever be a possibility.