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The world's most isolated vet?
  1. Joe Hollins


In the remote tropical waters of the mid-South Atlantic stands a vast and ancient volcano some 5000 metres high. Only the tip, worn over 14 million years into an 830 metre craggy pimple, rises out of the ocean, violently eroded into dinosaur-back peaks and vertiginous gullies, and surrounded by near impregnable sea cliffs of red cinder and blue-grey magma. The nearest landfall 1200 miles to the east is Angola, and 2000 miles to the west, Brazil. This is Joe Hollins’ patch – 47 square miles of convulsed igneous rock: the island of St Helena

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MY role as senior veterinary officer on St Helena, the island's first permanent vet, is multifaceted. After a spell filling in on the Falkland Islands, where biosecurity was of major concern, I wrote to the governor of St Helena telling him that a planned airport would expose the island to new biological threats, and offered my services. Current access by the charming hybrid cargo-passenger vessel, the Royal Mail Ship St Helena (the RMS, as she is fondly known), takes a minimum of five days, and the ship accidentally serves as a floating quarantine station. Aircraft, however, deliver incubating diseases, insect pests, and various other invasive species right to the door fresh and ready to rip. The result of my letter was that I came for six months to train paravets, and when the Department for International Development decided to fund a full-time vet, I felt compelled to apply.

Feeding Jonathan outside Plantation House, the Governor's home

The island is a British Overseas Territory with a resident governor whose powers extend over Ascension Island – where I work once a year – and Tristan da Cunha, far flung to the south. It is run by a non-ministerial government with a seat of power in the Castle, set into the impressive stone-walled defences and deep moat that run from side to side of Jamestown's deep ravine, sealing the town from the sea. So magnificent and towering are the cliffs that the island's roads only touch the sea in three places and there is no true quayside for ships to moor alongside. Arriving passengers must be ferried by boat to the wharf, where a judicious leap – aided by a steadying hand and a row of hanging grab ropes – brings them onto the long narrow waterfront beneath overhanging cliffs veiled in rockfall netting.

St Helena was the pride and joy of the British East India Company. Its strategic position, pre- Suez and Panama canals, meant that it could prosper readily by victualling passing ships from its clear streams and productive lands. A natural fortress, the company walled off even the smallest valley where it touched the sea, and scattered gun emplacements and signal stations around the island's circumference to fend off any hostile approach. But then the soils failed, the goats and pigs destroyed the land, the ships became larger and more self-sufficient, the slaves were emancipated, and finally the island was bypassed by the great canals. Hard times came and never truly went, and the island has since suffered from a diaspora and a decline in the birth rate.

Sperrey Island, beyond the steep western pastures

A tale of woe it may sound, but the island is stunning and the planned airport provides hope for a new tourism-based economy. Two-thirds of this tropical island, the coastal ribbon, is dramatic volcanic desert where I indulge my joy of hiking, but the central peaks that form the spine of the island are rainmakers clad in cloud forest rich in endemic species, and the surrounding lushness and steep rolling pastures delight the eye.

So that is the background to my veterinary province, and from it stem my many roles. The island vet is a generalist – perhaps that much maligned jack-of-all-trades. But what trades! He or she must be a practitioner, ministry vet, conservationist and researcher all rolled into one. As the first resident vet, I have both the challenge and pleasure of dealing with almost virgin territory. Daunting, yes, but what vet wouldn't cherish the opportunity?

Nasogastric feeding a weak donkey foal

Slowly I am unravelling a few of the local conditions – some of which are completely new to me. Perhaps the most bizarre has been ‘army worm’, actually a caterpillar of a Spodoptera moth that kills pasture in swathes. Not so extraordinary, except that the affected pasture then kills cattle. I saw such a case: drooling saliva, paralysed tongue and throat, manic behaviour and subsequent death. Research revealed the cause to be cyanogenesis – good old cyanide – the defensive response of, quite specifically, Kikuyu grass to insect attack. Then there's lantana ‘fever’, hepatic necrosis with fierce photosensitisation induced by the ingestion of lantana, a plant in the Verbena family. Activated charcoal dramatically alters the outcome. Hypomagnesaemia is widespread and well known, but survey blood samples have shown that subclinical hypomagnesaemia is widespread, even on pastures that are locally considered safe. And an investigation into the apparent mystery of regular goat deaths on certain properties soon revealed Haemonchus contortus, or barber's pole worm, to be the culprit, no doubt introduced from Africa. Postmortem examinations are invaluable for unknown conditions. Apart from proving Haemonchus infection, two other investigations recently yielded great dividends: selenium deficiency; and a common enemy from the plains of Africa, Anaplasma marginale (the island has ticks aplenty, the blue cattle tick [Boophilus] and the red tick [Rhipicephalus]). This knowledge has since allowed us to save a valuable bull, as the rickettsial parasite is responsive to tetracyclines.

Of course, I also take care of companion animals and have embarked on a neutering campaign to control profligate breeding and feral cats. This links to my involvement with the Defra/Overseas Territories Environment Programme-backed Wirebird Predator Control Project, as feral cats are threatening this endemic plover with extinction. It is man's fault, as ever, but sadly the feral cats must pay; I ensure their humane destruction. A position on the Health Protection Board allows me to present cross- cutting issues such as zoonoses, and discuss related issues such as meat and dairy imports, local meat production, and the fisheries (we have excellent local tuna).

Redrafting legislation – assisted by Crown Counsel – has been an avid time consumer, but to good effect. Legislation has been introduced to control cats and dogs, plus we have now created legal cat ownership with microchipping. Other regulations have been introduced to tighten biosecurity, which was my initial passion – protecting local bees from the ravages of colony collapse disorder and other threats, and the animals from exotic diseases, all backed by new veterinary certificates, with an array of appropriate tests, which have already paid off. Sea borders are vastly superior to land borders, but they are only as good as a nation's biosecurity.

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One of my greatest pleasures has been to embark on a transformation of the sheep industry, by shifting from traditional British breeds to a mutton breed, the South African Dorper. The woolly British breeds are prone to debilitation and death caused by blowfly myiasis, but also have to be hand sheared only to have the wool discarded. The Dorper is a docile, easy care, self-shearing, flystrike-resistant, hair breed that can be bred three times every two years and has a high twinning rate and a larger carcase – all factors that put more meat on the plate. The first year of ‘Dorperising’ local sheep has resulted in a crop of beautiful domino lambs. We also practise goat, pig and cattle AI to enhance genetics, enforced by the classic island threat of inbreeding.

The introduction of parent stock Lohmann brown chickens, allowing us to incubate their eggs and supply the islanders with highly productive pullets (laying 300 eggs per year), has been transforming. After just three years it looks as though our producers have all but wiped out the annual importation of a quarter of a million stale battery eggs by supplying fresh local eggs.

The rugged coast of Lots Wife and Sandy Bay

(left) Unloading the Dorper sheep from the RMS; (above) a halfbreed Dorper cross lamb

So, treating ailments, legislation, a spot of conservation, researching parasites and diseases, biosecurity, certification, animal welfare, public health, training and farmer education, genetic improvement, pest control, animal housing design … the list goes on.

But my greatest pleasure of all is to care for the oldest patient in the world, that is, the oldest known living animal in the world; my namesake, Jonathan. Jonathan, a rare Seychelles giant tortoise (not Aldabra), adorns the island's 5p piece, and his perambulations across the paddock in front of Plantation, the governor's splendid Georgian pile, are an iconic sight. Bristol Zoo and the Seychelles Nature Trust have provided invaluable advice about his husbandry, and I have discovered that, at 180 years old, a combination of cataracts, loss of smell and a blunt beak make him an inefficient grazer. Once weekly I hand feed him to boost his calorie intake, and get a buzz every time when this brittle old gentleman hears my call and rises to meet me. And after his meal, I wipe his chin, scratch his throat, and wish him well. Life expectancy is 150 years and, although I've made plans for his demise, I don't want to use them. Even longer may he live!

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