Good southern man

Meet Andrew Roe, Southland veterinarian and winner of the Alan Baldry Award, whose 30-year career has put him at the centre of disease outbreaks and taught him the value of collaboration

Southland farmland, New Zealand (image by Jacqui Gibson).

Southland farmland, New Zealand (image by Jacqui Gibson).


Years ago, when veterinarian Andrew Roe was called out to a Southland farm to diagnose the cause of 100 aborting ewes, he wasn’t too fazed by what he saw.

It was August 1997. Andrew was part-owner of Central Southland Vet Services and the NZVA's Southland branch secretary, based in Winton.

After nearly a decade working in Southland’s farming sector, he knew that toxoplasmosis and campylobacter were the two leading causes of abortion in sheep.

To his reckoning, lesser possibilities were border disease, bacillus and listeria.

Taking samples of the aborted lambs to Gribbles Veterinary Pathology in Mosgiel for routine testing, Andrew certainly didn’t expect the unexpected.

Yet that’s exactly what he got.

Combined test results from Gribbles and ESR came up blank for all the common nasties, but turned up a positive result for a brand new one, Salmonella Brandenburg.

“Back then, New Zealand had never seen a case of the disease in sheep,” says Andrew, who was recently awarded the Alan Baldry Award for outstanding services to the sheep and beef industry.

“There was little idea of how to prevent or treat it. Initially, we thought, ‘Weird, but hopefully this is just a one-off’.”

That was wishful thinking.

A year on, the disease would bed down in mid-Canterbury and become widespread in Southland and South Otago.

In the winter of 1998, more than 200 ewes died on the worst-affected farms.

Clinical signs included aborted lambs, loss of appetite, fever and eventual blood poisoning and death in ewes.

“People were really nervous,” explains Andrew, who moved to Southland in the late 1980s and has been there ever since.

“People were worried about their loss of income. Farmers faced replacing not only their lambs, but also their ewes. The stress of seeing their animals sick and dying was hugely taxing for them emotionally.”

Then came the realisation that the disease was a zoonotic one.

By spring, the Southland Times reported 90 cases of Salmonella Brandenburg in farmers and farm workers.

“I was receiving reports of three to four new cases of the disease every day. We were on the phone providing as much free advice as we could.”

Today, Salmonella Brandenburg is considered the country’s third most common cause of abortion in ewes.

However, thanks to vaccination brought to market in 2000, cases of the disease tend to occur less frequently these days.

Andrew says that first outbreak taught him a lot, and to some extent shaped his 30-year career.

“It showed me the value veterinarians can add as communicators and educators. Farmers were very grateful for our support when the disease peaked. We made sure they knew the cause of the disease, how to deal with it and how to protect their ewes against the disease in future lambing seasons.”

Andrew and fellow veterinarians John Smart and Neil Kennington spoke at public information events in town halls. They were frequently interviewed by the press.

Andrew reported on the development of the vaccine through his NZVA branch role and went on to present papers on Salmonella Brandenburg at various sheep and beef conferences.

Nearly 20 years on, his interest in the disease is unflagging. He provides an annual spring update on Salmonella Brandenburg in the Sheep and Beef Society’s magazine, The Grazing Gazette, of which he is both ad rep and editor.

But it’s not his only focus.

Still a full-time veterinarian for VetSouth, the Southland-based practice he helped form in 2006 and co-owned until 2009, he’s the Southland facilitator for Beef + Lamb New Zealand and Deer Industry New Zealand.

In both roles he shares technical information with farmers to help them improve animal health and farm profitability.

On top of that, he summarises journal abstracts for an academic publication called Research Review, aimed at veterinarians keen to stay updated on issues relating to sheep and beef.

And he continues to represent New Zealand veterinarians and industry best practice on groups such as Massey University’s Leptospirosis Research Group and the NZVA Standards Committee.

As an NZVA volunteer for more than 20 years, Andrew’s been a member of the sheep and beef special interest executive branch, branch secretary, and president for a term.

At 53, he says there’s still a lot to learn about his specialist area and plenty to keep the next generation of sheep and beef veterinarians busy.

“Lamb survival is a challenge right now. It’s simply not a good look to lose 20% of our lambs every season. We have to keep more of them alive, whether it’s through understanding more about the maternal instincts and milk nutrition of ewes, or improving access to shelter.

“Lamb survival is a challenge right now. It’s simply not a good look to lose 20% of our lambs every season.

We have to keep more of them alive, whether it’s through understanding more about the maternal instincts and milk nutrition of ewes, or improving access to shelter.”

andrew roe, veterinarian

“Antibiotic resistance is another huge issue, but it’s one that needs solving by veterinarians and the medical profession working hand-in-hand.

“To me, it makes sense to share knowledge, to work together and to collaborate with others in the community to solve these sorts of issues.

“I saw it up close when it came to responding to the Salmonella Brandenburg outbreak years ago. It took government agencies to do their bit. We had Massey microbiologists involved, with Schering Plough on the vaccine.

“It was a case of councils, farmers and the public all pulling together. In my experience, that’s how you arrive at good solutions to difficult problems.”

This story was first published in VetScript magazine.

Catlins, Southland, New Zealand (image by Jacqui Gibson).

Catlins, Southland, New Zealand (image by Jacqui Gibson).