As catastrophic bushfires ripped through the Wheatbelt earlier this month, a band of volunteer veterinarians were at ground zero helping with the harrowing task of euthanising thousands of badly burnt sheep. On February 6, out-of-control fires at Narrogin and Corrigin laid waste to vast tracts of bush and farmland, destroying houses, sheds, fences, feed and livestock. Within a day, as about 140 firefighters worked to extinguish the blazes, a handful of volunteer vets were busy assessing injured livestock and euthanising those with no hope of recovery. Though the figures are still being collated, Department of Fire and Emergency Services Deputy Commissioner Craig Waters estimated at least 5000 head of livestock had been put down. “I’m not sure what amount needs to be euthanised currently, but there was around 5000 reported initially,” he said. “I think they’re estimating another 5000 that may be euthanised on top of that due to the level of injuries they sustained during the fire.” Volunteer vet Holly Ludeman was part of a team that spent two days assessing about 20,000 sheep on fire-affected properties in the Shire of Corrigin. “I think approximately 3000 of those were affected by fire and we may have euthanised somewhere between 500 to 800,” she said. “Some properties were worse affected than others. “A lot of sheep were OK … but the impact will continue from here. They will still need to be monitored for damaged feet, damaged udders and smoke inhalation.” This was the first time Ms Ludeman, who is managing director of The Livestock Collective and has an extensive background in live export, responded to a bushfire crisis. Other volunteer vets included David Wrighton, Jim McMahon and Michylla Seal, who was sent to Wickepin. No one would envy the job, but Ms Ludeman said it was important to take some of the burden off farmers faced with the task of killing their own sheep. “Where emotions were high on properties, we could come in as professionals and make objective decisions about which animals were going to survive,” she said. “We went out there to help take that decision away from the producers, obviously with their consent. “If possible, we allowed the producer to not be there while we destroyed their livestock because it is really stressful. “They’ve spent years building up genetics and caring for those livestock, so to then have a natural disaster like that can be really confronting. “They’re also dealing with fences and loss of property and other things, so for us it was important that we went out and helped to make those decisions and get it done for them.” While it was undoubtedly a tough job, Ms Ludeman said her professional training and experience kicked in. “I think you’ve got your professional hat on at the time and you know that you’re doing the best thing for the animals,” she said. “Obviously after the two days, when everything stops, yeah, that was hard, but I’m really glad that my services could help in a crisis and that’s what it was about.” Ms Ludeman decided to help after receiving a call from Livestock Collective director Steven Bolt at the height of the fires. She arrived the next morning and joined a team including Shire staff, livestock agents and Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development officers. “Each Shire had a list of properties affected that needed some veterinary advice and assistance with destroying animals,” Ms Ludeman said. “On day one we just got to all the properties to make sure we could humanely destroy animals that were suffering. “On day two we went back to those properties and started treating any animals that were treatable. “David stayed on for day three, so there was three days of vets volunteering their time in Corrigin. “Then Michylla was back out this weekend, reassessing some of those properties and setting up a roster to make sure we go back to keep supporting them.” In a Facebook post, Mr Wrighton said he and his colleagues were thinking of all the farmers who had lost stock in the “devastating” fires. The post included a photo of a euthanised sheep with an injured foot “showing the stages of loss of the delicate shoe horn at the coronary band due to extreme heat”. “Livestock owners, please look out for this in your sheep as this can occur later, causing severe pain and infection in one or more legs,” he wrote. Ms Ludeman said it was “impressive” seeing volunteers and communities come together after such a devastating event. “There were other farmers and volunteers, people driving loaders and people setting up portable yards, so it was a whole community effort,” she said. “I was just one of many people that were getting in and helping. “I think it’s that quintessential community spirt in a crisis, where you see people come together to support each other.” Vets from the RSPCA, Vets Beyond Borders and the Department of Primary Industry and Regional Development also helped with the animal welfare response. DPIRD activated its State Support Plan for Animal Welfare in Emergencies, with a spokesperson saying the department worked with the shires of Narrogin and Wickepin to “assist with animal impact assessments and provide veterinary services”. “DPIRD officers continue to liaise with grower and industry groups to support landholders and agribusinesses in the fire affected areas,” the spokesperson said. “DPIRD will coordinate the initial assessments of impacted properties with animals across all fires once there is access to the fire ground, and will work with the shires in respect of reporting animal losses and injuries.” DPIRD has advised anyone with injured livestock or animal welfare concerns to contact their local vet or shire. RSPCA WA executive manager of animal and enforcement operations, Hannah Dreaver, said “team members, including a vet and vet nurse”, were deployed to assist. “Thousands of livestock were found deceased or injured as a result of these fires and the community will be recovering from this for some time,” she said. “Bushfires can have a swift and devastating effect; the scale of this can be overwhelming and animals would have suffered terribly. “Of course, we were also ready to assist if we saw injured wildlife, but this wasn’t required from us in this instance.” Landholders who have suffered damage to stock and infrastructure have been urged to contact DPIRD to help inform an impact assessment which will guide the State Government’s response.