So – little snowball the silkie got the chop today. Well, not exactly the chop. Jay tried to dislocate her spine in the usual fashion, but her head came away in his hand – her whole musculature was so degraded, her little body so emaciated. This time the reason for the kill was that she was ill. Horribly. Marek’s is a nasty virus spread through dust on feathers; silkies are apparently particularly susceptible to it. Once it takes hold it causes tumours to grow all over their body, lesions on the skin and general torment. The most common symptom (and Snowball’s) is lameness which becomes acute, leading to paralysis of legs and wings. The whole nervous system breaks down. Poor thing – she sat there on the grass pecking at the juicy cob that was her last meal. She was feisty to the last, but also trusting in that pathetic way only a sick animal can be.
And so to the issue: Marek’s is such a virulent disease that commercial chicken breeders make sure they vaccinate their birds against it – in fact, against various forms that might or might not be currently on the rampage. The trouble is that the Marek’s vaccination, like Foot and Mouth or Avian Influenza vaccinations, can hide the fact that the animal receiving it is a carrier. I was aware of this; each time I let my Warrens out to busy themselves in my borders, I knew there was the possibility that they might spread Marek’s. But somehow, stupidly, I thought it couldn’t be THAT common. Surely most hybrids don’t carry it…surely my silkie family had become resistant (many strains of pure breeds are). But I was foolish. Now I realise why DEFRA doesn’t want animals vaccinated against F&M or AI. Why in heaven’s name they allow all the other vaccinations, when spreading disease is the result, must surely be because the multinational pharmaceutical companies, in league with the hatcheries, insist that it’s the only way for them to keep making profits. Great. Keep the industry profitable, but wipe out all the little players like me who are keeping the gene pool wide (a silkie has 100% of the chicken genome; hybrids have 10%). And worse still, in the long run make your national flock increasingly susceptible to some wipe-out disease for which the chemists have not yet discovered a vaccine. Good thinking, you agribusiness people.
I got in touch with an immunoligist working on poultry to find out what I might do to protect Acorn, our last surviving silkie, from the Marek’s. She kindly forwarded my e-mail to the Marek’s specialist in her team who said – nothing. Either she is genetically immune from birth or not – she has already been majorly exposed to the virus in my back garden, and may develop symptoms. The only advice was – next time I get pure breeds in, vaccinate. Great. Vaccinate; vaccinate. Every wild bird; every pheasant and goose and duck. Every animal that might manage to succumb to some weird mutating version of something like Marek’s, or Avian Influenza (a version of which has been present in all the pandemic influenzas that have ever hit humanity). The whole world must be vaccinated. Every living, breathing creature.
I’d better find out who owns the patent and become a shareholder toute suite.