A soon-to-be published academic paper will confirm the significance of the challenge posed by sheep scab in Northern Ireland.

The publication in question is the journal, Preventative Veterinary Medicine.

Work undertaken by veterinarian and Harper Adams University PhD student, Paul Crawford, forms the basis of the paper’s findings.  

Sheep scab which is endemic in the United Kingdom (UK) sheep flock, has a significant, negative impact on animal welfare.

But, up to this point, nothing has previously been published about the distribution of the disease in NI, nor about Northern Irish farmers’ knowledge and behaviours relating to the disease, its treatment, prevention and control.

Sheep scab research

Between March and June 2021 an online questionnaire on the disease was completed by sheep farmers in NI.

44 respondents, out of a total of 122 valid returns (36%), indicated that they had at least one outbreak of sheep scab in their flock within the previous five years.

These flocks were spread throughout NI and included flocks grazing on common land.

Farmers reporting the disease in their flock considered movements of sheep between flocks to be the main cause of flock infestation.

Respondents demonstrated knowledge gaps in relation to the parasite biology, disease transmission, prevention and treatment options, as well as a lack of awareness of some of the relevant industry guidelines.

The academic paper highlights the fact that some farmers rely on clinical signs alone to rule out the possibility that newly purchased sheep are infested with sheep scab before mixing them with their flock.

According to Paul Crawford, this activity poses a high risk for the introduction of sheep scab into previously un-infested flocks.

The inadequacy of some farmers’ quarantine rules, or their inability to follow them, was also reported by farmers as being the cause of their flock infestation.

Impact of the disease

Sheep scab outbreaks were shown to result in significant financial cost, with some farmers reporting their most recent outbreak had cost over £2,500.

The paper also highlights that in addition to the animal health and welfare impact and financial cost, sheep scab was reported to have a social cost – 94 respondents (79%) agreed that an outbreak caused emotional stress to affected farmers.

These findings have provided evidence of the widespread nature of sheep scab in the NI flock, and of the knowledge gaps and behaviours which need to be addressed to improve sheep scab control.

This will require a combination of focused research, knowledge exchange between farmers, advisors, policymakers and regulators, and co-developed disease control plans at a flock and national level.

Paul Crawford commented: “The key findings of the paper include the fact that sheep scab is widespread across Northern Ireland. Only 4% of respondents correctly answered all the questions about sheep scab.

“It is expensive, not only in financial terms with some outbreaks costing more than £2,000 to resolve, but it also takes an emotional toll on the farm families involved.

“The widespread nature of the disease and the knowledge gaps identified highlight the importance of ongoing work in this area,” he added.

He stressed that the illegal practice of using an organophosphate dip in shower systems for scab control and the belief among farmers that this is an effective solution to scab infestation, persists.

Crawford specifically highlighted the role of colleagues Philip Robinson, Fiona Lovatt and Kim Hamer for their support in making the research project possible.