A ground-breaking £220,000 project to tackle sheep scab in Northern Ireland has been officially launched.
Members of The Northern Ireland Sheep Scab Group joined with partners Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, (AFBI), Animal Health and Welfare NI (HWNI) and project leader, the Moredun Research Institute, at Ulster Wool on May 24 to launch the grassroots initiative.
This project will see farmers, vets and other industry professionals unite to tackle this devastating disease, which has bedevilled the sheep farming community and their flocks for decades. The launch comes after the partnership was awarded a grant by The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) as part of its Endemic Diseases of Livestock Initiative.
The £220,000 programme, which starts in July 2022, consists of four foci, based on Moredun’s experience in its current Defra and Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE) funded sheep scab control project, which aims to improve the control of sheep scab by focussing on clusters of farmers within three hotspot regions of England.
The NI project focusses on four main aspects, which will be used to inform future research, including:
A series of events bringing farmers and vets together to open discussions involving sharing knowledge and concerns about sheep scab.
Funded vet meetings
During which practitioners will be trained to conduct on-farm visits raising awareness of best practice control for sheep scab.
Where vets will be able to diagnose and treat scab, gathering information about the outbreak and addressing other concerns about flock-health.
Data collection and analysis
Focussing on the prevalence and distribution of scab, evaluating the costs to the economy, welfare and the environment.
Despite currently being a notifiable disease in Northern Ireland, historically very little research has been undertaken into how scab is spread and more importantly, how it can ultimately be eradicated.
Chairperson of The Northern Ireland Sheep Scab Group, Paul Crawford, hopes the project will lay the foundations for Northern Ireland’s first sheep scab eradication programme.
Mr Crawford said: ‘‘Northern Ireland has been lagging behind the rest of the United Kingdom in both research and piloting control strategies for scab. This project will act as a catalyst for change and eventually lead to the creation of a bespoke eradication plan for Northern Ireland.
“Farmers are the driving force behind this initiative and it was reassuring to see so many of them and other industry professionals at the launch. That said, eradicating sheep scab from Northern Ireland will require enormous effort from all parties and the collaborators.
“There is a reliable blood test available, developed at the Moredun Research Institute, which can detect scab before symptoms appear and with the combined efforts of scientists, farmers, vets and other industry professionals, one day we will be able to eradicate scab from Northern Ireland and this project is the first step towards achieving that status.’’
The Moredun Research Institute’s Dr Stewart Burgess, an expert on sheep scab, is leading the project.
Speaking at the launch, Dr Burgess said: “It’s been fantastic to see all of groundwork come to fruition, culminating in the funding for this exciting project. We will apply the lessons learned from the current RDPE sheep scab control project, that we are leading on, which is targeting sheep scab in three hotspot regions, to the control of scab in Northern Ireland.
“We aim to get an honest picture of how scab is perceived and dealt with by farmers and vets currently and what needs to be done to change attitudes to control, ensuring the tools available are being used by all parties to ensure flocks are scab free now and in the future.’’
The launch follows three years of industry-led activity spearheaded by the Northern Ireland Sheep Scab Group, which was established in 2019 amid growing concern from farmers and vets about increasing levels of scab in the national flock.
The group’s main objective was to consider how to achieve better control of the disease. A lack of research in the field was identified as one of the main stumbling blocks.
Members concluded that extensive farm-level research and interviews with farmers and vets would be required to find out how widespread the problem is, identifying barriers to control.