NEW INSIGHTS into how farmers handle disease in their sheep flocks, is the result of an economic study undertaken by the University of Bristol.
And, it turns on its head, traditional thinking on treating diseases such as sheep scab.
Farmers who don’t treat their sheep to avoid infection are often blamed for the national increase in disease. However, an economic study, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) has found that, in some scenarios, not treating is the most economically sensible decision to take.
Prior to 1992, farmers throughout the UK were required by law to treat all their sheep to prevent scab, an infectious condition caused by the presence of a tiny parasitic mite. At that time, there were only around 40 outbreaks per year.  
After compulsory treatment was removed, the number of scab outbreaks rose dramatically and there are now around 5000-10,000 outbreaks each year. This costs the UK sheep industry at least £10m every year.
The failure to reduce scab incidence, despite many industry initiatives, is often blamed on those farmers who are unwilling to use routine preventative treatments.
New research, published in the journal ‘Preventative Veterinary Medicine’, by Emily Nixon and colleagues from the School of Biological Sciences, shows many are being blamed unfairly.
Information on the losses and treatment costs were analysed along with the risks of scab, to show whether it was financially better for a farmer to treat to prevent scab before any sheep are infected or whether it was worth running a risk and only treating if the flock contracted scab.
Analysis suggested that, under current conditions, it is actually only cost-effective for farmers to use preventative treatments in areas where the scab risk is highest – in Scotland, Northern England and Wales and where high risk grazing strategies (particularly common grazing) are used.
For farmers in other areas, it is more cost-effective in the long run for them to only pay to treat if and when their flock gets scab.
Emily Nixon said: “Farmers will not treat preventatively when it is not in their economic interest to do so. To achieve national reductions in scab incidence, approaches that give farmers an economic incentive to use preventative treatment will need to be adopted.”
These findings show that when it comes to disease control, there is no one blanket strategy that works for all farmers, but tailoring strategies to specific regions or farms can help to ensure that farmers do not lose out.