SCIENTISTS HAVE found that it is possible to use 'conservation grazing' to promote biodiversity without also increasing the risk of liver fluke in livestock.

Farmers and crofters have being raising concerns that agri environment schemes which require animals to graze on wetland areas could make the puddle-loving parasites more of a problem. The liver fluke, which is a highly pathogenic flatworm parasite that causes significant disease and production losses in grazing animals, is transmitted by an intermediate mud snail host typically found on low-lying, boggy or ‘fluky’ ground.

Scientists at the Moredun were approached to investigate whether it was possible to promote animal health and biodiversity at the same time, and over the last couple of years have been evaluating the fluke risk to livestock under two different agri environment scheme scenarios – firstly, on the Caerlaverock Estate, Solway Firth, where livestock grazing is required to provide the optimum habitat for natterjack toads, a protected species in Scotland; and secondly, at SRUC’s Hill and Mountain Research Centre, Kirkton and Auchtertyre Farms near Crianlarich, where Moredun has been monitoring wader scrapes established to encourage wetland birds, such as snipe, curlew, oystercatcher.

Under both scenarios, the researchers determined the liver fluke infection status of sentinel animals grazing these areas, based on faecal egg counting (FEC) and determined the presence, species identification and fluke infection status of mud snails collected on-site using a PCR sequencing approach.

Commenting on the results, Moredun’s Principal Scientist in Parasitology, Dr Philip Skuce, said: “Results would indicate that the fluke risk to grazing livestock under these specific grazing scenarios was actually relatively low, but requires ongoing monitoring and management.”

When asked what advice he would give to farmers who still remain hesitant to explore agri environment schemes, due to concerns over liver fluke risk he replied: “Don’t just jump to the assumption that this is a really bad idea. Most farmers don’t monitor fluke in their animals anyway, it would really help if they did – before, during and after grazing anywhere.

“My key message is know the fluke status of your animals before you even consider putting them out there, know which products work if you need to treat them and what products don’t.”

Dr Skuce said that Moredun was now looking to extend its study to investigate fluke risk under other environmental schemes, such as woodland and peatland habitats.

“This study illustrates that it is possible to promote biodiversity benefits through conservation grazing, and not at the expense of animal health, but this requires evidence and informed decision-making,” he concluded.