Late summer is a great time to start implementing the proven1 Five-Point Plan to reduce lameness in sheep and vets across Scotland are gearing up to help local farmers take the first step to better disease control.

Vet Giselle Brown from Galloway Vets, based at Kirkcudbright in Dumfries and Galloway, is already engaging proactively with more than 15 sheep farmer members of her practice’s flock health club over lameness problems. She says the disease is invariably a ‘front of mind’ management issue because it is so clearly visible.

“We always get lots of questions about lameness; it’s the one topic sheep farmers really get concerned about and – if they are wrestling with a particular problem on farm – are typically seeking advice on how to best get started with a lameness control plan. Our last club meeting focused exclusively on the disease and was one of our most successful sessions,” she says.

Farmers attending the latest club meeting discussed the different causes of lameness and the practical steps towards better disease control. Ms Brown points out that implemented correctly and given long term commitment, the proven Five-Point plan gives farmers a clear framework for managing lameness effectively. This is because it builds natural disease resilience within a flock, reduces the disease challenge and spread on the farm, and improves flock immunity through vaccination.

“More widespread adoption of this proven lameness control plan on farm will also help the Scottish sheep sector cut its use of antibiotics for foot infections and meet new industry targets; a sheep sector task force facilitated by RUMA has already signed up to a 10% reduction in antibiotic use by 2020,” she adds.

Practical steps

She added that upcoming weaning is an ideal time to cull out any ewes with chronic foot problems and re-set the breeding flock for the new sheep year. “Start by culling out any ewes that have had persistent lameness problems,” she says.

“Ewes suffering repeated bouts of lameness are a constant source of infection in the flock and make the other control measures ineffective. Use cull tags, spray marks or EID to identify the main offenders and any ewes with chronically misshapen feet.”

However, early treatment of any lame sheep (ideally within three days of becoming lame2) is an important part of the Five-Point Plan, particularly early on in its implementation while there are still a considerable number of lame animals.

“The feet of affected sheep should be examined closely to identify any diseases causing the lameness. If in doubt seek veterinary diagnostic advice and then treat the infectious conditions appropriately with antibiotics, even if it is only a mild case,” she says.

If footrot is implicated, vaccination of the whole flock will help reduce the lesions caused by multiple strains of the bacteria Dichelobacter nodosus (most farms have more than two strains), which is present on 97% of farms3 and a year-round threat. On-going vaccination, timed in anticipation of high disease risk times (such as warm, wet underfoot conditions and at housing) on the farm, will also help prevent future problems and reduce antibiotic usage in future years.

Ms Brown added that further preventative parts of the plan include quarantine of any incoming animals and avoiding spreading disease when sheep are gathered and handled.

“Incoming sheep are a potential source of strains of bacteria and are therefore a big risk to sheep already on the farm. Make sure you buy sheep carefully (ask your stock supplier if they are following the Five-Point Plan) and do not accept lame animals or any with misshapen feet."

Incomers should be quarantined for at least four weeks, she said, vaccinating and footbathing them on arrival. Turn every sheep to look for early footrot or CODD and treat any clinical cases as soon as possible.

Finally, to reduce the potential disease challenge from the farm environment; remember that footrot and scald spread from sheep to sheep.

“The bacteria that cause most of the lameness problems in Scotland spread well in wet, soiled sheep handling and field areas and can survive on pasture for up to two weeks. It is therefore important to spread lime, or use gravel or wood chip, in any poached or heavy traffic areas, such as around feed or water troughs,” said Ms Brown.