Farmers on edge: pig plague feared to roam the forests

Harjumaa veterinaarkeskuse juhataja Vladimir Vahesaar ja loomaarst Andres Paomees kordavad Küüni sigala omanikule Toomas Liivikule üle seakatku vältimiseks vajalikud ohutusabinõud.

PHOTO: Mihkel Maripuu

Two men clad in all-white exposure suits are seated on the sofa at Kuusalu’s «Küüni» pig farm office. Facing them, the owner Toomas Liivik seems somewhat tense while trying to keep his cool.

The men in white – Harju County Veterinary Centre head Vladimir Vahesaar and licensed vet Andres Paomees – are telling the owner of a 6,821 pig farm of the African plague probably present in Estonia, the detection thereof being just a matter of time. 

Thereafter, the guests explain the Veterinary Board will be checking all farms in the land to see that all precautions are taken.

Carried by... whatever

Mr Liivik is being told about the dangers of cereal plants and straw – as infected wild swine may have run over it. The pigs may not be kept outdoors. The infection may be carried by means of transport, as well as the farmer’s sandwich dropped to his favourite hog. The farmer knows it all... 

The knowledge of the plague has been lurking around for a month. On July 21st, disinfection tubs were installed for all vehicles to drive through – and mats for humans to walk upon.

Into the pig farms, no stranger is allowed under any condition whatsoever. People would not get sick, but they just might carry the virus.

In the Küüni farm no litter is used, no tools are carried in and out. Before work, farm hands take a shower and change clothes. Once in the farm, they walk no more out till the day is done. With jobs hanging in the balance, the men are ever so careful.

No hunting, the farmers are told – as the plague is present in the woods. Mr Liivik hastens to assure them he has no hunters here. And even with hunter-friends, the farm hands are forbidden to communicate.

Veterinary Board and farmers have been reconciled to the plague being here. Once the initial sick pig is discovered, a detailed and systematic plan will unfold: a three kilometre danger zone is proclaimed around the outbreak site, plus a ten kilometre surveillance area with strict restrictions applied regarding movement.

Mr Vahesaar says the next step is liquidating the plague site i.e. if the pigs are still alive in the farm in question, they’ll be killed by carbon dioxide.

No assurance

Toomas Liivik has had his farm for two decades, almost – it’s his life’s work and he is trying not to be emotional... Vowing to take all measures, he knows one may just never be too sure. In Lithuania, he recalls, a pig farm got the plague by a worker picking mushrooms in the woods. The guy put down his bucket while at it, and took the thing along to work afterwards.

Mr Liivik admits they have discussed the various bad scenarios, but he’d rather not go there right now: «I’d like to keep my mind off of that. I’d like to keep it from happening.»

Mr Vahesaar says the best thing to happen is for the plague to stay in the woods and never come out. It isn’t excluded, he said, but let’s don’t keep hopes too high.

The other version would be for the plague to limit itself with small farms. The worst would be for the large farms to be hit – then   the damage will be large-scale and severe. 

If a farmer has kept all the safety requirements, the state will compensate the killing of infected pigs and their burial. A bigger problem then remains, for the farmers: how to build up production again.

«What are the options? One issue is whether or not the owner has some kind of insurance,» says Mr Vahesaar. «Or else he has some capital set aside for the rainy day. The third option... isn’t really there you know.»

Mr Vahesaar says the small farms are restored more easily: «In a farm with one-two-three swine, the farmer will clean everything up, scrape the whole place, and will have the money to buy a couple of piglets. But try and buy seven thousand!»

But, cautions the expert, the small farmers better be careful too and not be self-centred: spare a thought for the big ones.

African pig plague

•    Veterinary and Food Board is checking  931 pig farms all over Estonia

•    In Latvia, the plague has been found in two farms, one of which is in Valka (twin city to Estonia’s Valga)

•    In Latvia, 484 domestic swine have been killed

•    A 40 km buffer zone has been established at Latvian border

•    In the biggest pig farm in Lithuania, 20,000 swine have been put to death