The summer and early autumn months are the ideal period to re-set the breeding flock for the new sheep year and it's also the perfect time to embark on a proactive programme to stamp out sheep lameness.

It's also a time when flockmasters can implement the proven Five-Point Plan, which according to Murray Farmcare Veterninary Pharmacy has been successful in reducing lameness.

“Our suitably qualified persons (SQPs) engage year-round with many sheep producers in Scotland, helping farmers to implement proactive flock health plans that focus primarily on sustainable disease prevention. It’s the way forward," said Kevin Turnbull, sales director for Murray Farmcare who added that often, it is some sort of lameness problem that draws the conversation on such issues that are so visible and time-consuming to manage.

“The Five-Point Plan to reduce sheep lameness gives farmers a clear strategy for managing any foot problems. Implemented correctly over the longer term, it builds natural disease resilience within a flock, reduces the disease challenge and spread on the farm, and improves flock immunity through vaccination,” he added.

One farmer who has benefitted from this advice is Andrew Macgregor who runs 1000 Welsh half-bred ewes on 780 upland, all grass LFA acres at Relief Farm, Ecclefechan near Lockerbie. The ewes are put to Texel tups in November each year and then lamb outside from April 1. Lambs are finished off grass alone with any left always sold as stores before Christmas.

As a result of first implementing the Five-Point Plan to reduce sheep lameness back in 2012, Andrew Macgregor has more or less stamped out footrot and not had to run any ewes through a foot-bath in seven years.

“We’ve saved so much time and energy since we focused more on disease prevention strategies, primarily vaccination. We’ve also reduced antibiotic usage for lame sheep and stopped buying what are quite unpleasant chemicals to handle, such as formalin and copper sulphate. It’s been a great step forward,” Andrew says.

“Our system suits the farm, but back in 2012 we were really struggling with far too many lame sheep. Back then, at least a third of the ewes were affected by footrot and this was also having knock-on effect; in so much that we were also seeing plenty of scald in lambs during May and June,” Andrew says.

“To try and keep on top of things we were foot-bathing the whole flock every other week, which was ridiculous. I knew something had to change.”

Drawing on advice from Mr Turnbull, Andrew set out to transform the situation.

“Back in September 2012 we took the decision to vaccinate the whole flock with Footvax®. This involved a primary vaccination course of two injections four to six weeks apart. In retrospect, this was the most transformative action we took because the following spring our ewes were so much sounder on their feet."

He added that lambing outside helps in terms of the reduced infection pressure on the ground from the Dichelobacter nodosus bacteria known to cause footrot, but that the blanket flock vaccination was necessary to build immunity up in the ewes and tip the balance in the sheep’s favour.

Mr Macgregor also made sure that if an animal did go lame it was caught and treated appropriately – with antibiotics, if necessary – as quickly as possible. This is a policy which has been maintained consistently over the past seven years, along with removing any persistent offenders from the flock; for example, if a ewe goes lame more than once, she is tagged for culling.

Furthermore, he has stopped foot trimming, recognising the latest evidence that shows that it delays healing and increases the risk of spreading infection.

As a result, Mr Turnbull advised any sheep farmer wrestling with a flock lameness issue, should ask for practical advice.

“Upcoming weaning is an ideal time to cull out any ewes with chronic foot problems. 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.

“In addition, the feet of all affected sheep should be inspected closely to identify any diseases causing the lameness. If in doubt seek diagnostic advice from your vet and then treat any infectious bacterial conditions appropriately with antibiotics, even if it is only a mild case,” he advised.

Andrew Macgregor says that the fact that he has been able to ‘mothball’ his foot-bathing facility for so long is definitive proof that the Five-Point Plan works. However, he acknowledges the significant value to be had from working with someone who can look at the flock situation through a separate pair of eyes.

“I’d urge any sheep farmer struggling with a lameness problem to seek out the help from a trusted adviser, whether that be your vet or a trained SQP. We were fighting a losing battle on our own and Murray Farmcare has certainly helped us transform the situation and keeps a watching brief to make sure we don’t take a step back to the bad old days.”