Animal Health and Welfare Northern Ireland (AHWNI) has said it is concerned about the levels of sheep scab being diagnosed in Northern Ireland’s sheep flocks.

Dr. Stewart Burgess, leader of the sheep scab research group at Moredun Research Institute in Scotland, said that blood samples show flocks may have been infested with sheep scab mites for a prolonged period.

This means that a high percentage of animals from these flocks are likely to have been infested, he said.

Burgess is currently leading scab control projects in Northern Ireland, England and the Western Isles of Lewis and Harris and has said there are a number of hotspots in Northern Ireland with high risks of significant spread of scab.

Sheep scab

Sheep scab. Image: SCOPS

Clinical signs of sheep scab may develop over several months, AHWNI said, however animal health and welfare can become compromised at an early stage.

Transmission of the disease may occur directly – mites spreading from animal to animal – or indirectly via contaminated items like scanning trailers, wool left on fences and hurdles or on clothing.

“There is therefore potential for sheep scab to spread at multiple locations, including at points of common use of facilities or equipment, at markets or shows,” it said.

“As lambing gets underway, it is important that anyone who suspects that scab may be present in their flock seeks advice at the earliest opportunity, to reduce the risk of having to deal with the disease in lambs as well as ewes.”

Northern Ireland’s sheep industry

AHWNI said sheep production is important to the Northern Irish economy and collaboration between government and farmers is necessary to tackle endemic diseases in the sheep population, like sheep scab.

Improved sheep health and welfare would increase animal productivity, address the challenge of antimicrobial resistance and increase environmental sustainability through reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The levels of engagement in the Northern Irish project, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), have been high AHWNI said.

Over 80 sheep farmers have engaged with the project to receive on-farm advice, free blood testing and assistance with treatment.