VET’S DIARY: Livestock are at risk from lightning strikes

Lightning never strikes twice, or does it?

Overnight on July 1, was, by broad agreement, the most spectacular display of thunder and lightning witnessed in the Alnwick area in living memory.

While it’s impossible to predict with any accuracy where lightning might strike, there is no doubt that when it has happened once there has been a combination of circumstances which might lead to a repeat.

By all accounts we were entertained by a spectacular 360 degree visual display, accompanied by booming sound effects.

Sadly, I missed most of it.

Having been on call overnight the previous night, Wednesday was essential for recovering my beauty sleep.

So, when Mrs Macfarlane interrupted my slumber in the early hours to witness this force of nature, I’m afraid I could only manage five minutes before ducking back under the covers to resume my snooze.

The following day the only topic of excited conversation was the previous night’s storm.

As vets, though, each thunder storm brings with it a slight sense of foreboding. You see, we frequently have to attend calls to the victims of lightning strike.

While all species can be struck, in my experience cattle seem particularly at risk. I believe that this is likely to result from their natural inclination to shelter under trees and to be more likely to drink from streams.

So it was that my first call on that Thursday was to examine the body of a cow found dead that morning.

Many farmers have Livestock Insurance and these policies will often provide cover for lightning strike.

When an unaccountable death happens in the proximity of a thunder storm the farmer needs to know whether lightning was the cause before submitting a claim to their insurer.

On arrival at the farm, Davie took me to the dead cow, which was beside a spring on high ground, beyond the farmhouse. Standing close by was her recently orphaned calf.

Close inspection confirmed the tell-tale signs of lightning strike – dilated pupils in the eye, half-chewed grass in the mouth and scorch marks on the skin.

I advised Davie that he should contact his insurer and that I could provide a Veterinary Certificate confirming the cause of death.

It is often assumed that lightning strike is a random event, but this is far from the truth.

The discharge from an electrical storm will always follow the path of least resistance.

Tall objects, high ground and moisture provide good conductivity for electricity.

Davie’s poor unassuming cow was simply munching on some sweet grass, having just had a drink from the spring, when the bolt of lightning struck her.

While it’s impossible to predict with any accuracy where lightning might strike, there is no doubt that when it has happened once there has been a combination of circumstances which might lead to a repeat.

An area of pasture that has been deadly could be again. In this case, a spring on high ground was the attraction for the cow and for the lightning bolt.

As a general rule, if you can, either remove the attractant or remove the livestock.

Davie has fenced off the spring and he’s hoping, as we all are, that the storm has cleared the air and a gentle summer can begin with no more “once in a lifetime” spectacles.