SHEEP farmers running flocks with a barren rate of more than 2% are being offered subsidised blood tests to check whether toxoplasmosis is causing the problem.
As scanning starts in parts of the country and farmers contend with concerns they will be hit by the Schmallenberg virus (SBV) this lambing season, they are being reminded that toxoplasmosis is the main infectious cause of early embryo loss in sheep. It is also a very common cause of barrenness, abortion and weak lambs born alive.
Data from last year’s Barren EweCheck scheme, run by MSD Animal Health, showed that 83% of the flocks tested had been exposed to the toxoplasma parasite.
MSD Animal Health vet Drew McGurren said: “Sheep producers are rightly concerned about SBV at the moment, but it is important to understand that other disease problems could well be at the root of a poor scanning result.
“For example, toxoplasma is an environmental contaminant spread by infected cats. This means all flocks are at risk because it only takes one brief visit by an infected cat to contaminate the whole farm.
“The good news is that where toxoplasma infection has been confirmed in a flock, the disease can be controlled effectively by a vaccination regime. What’s more, the costs of a prevention programme can be easily covered by a reduction in future flock barren rates.”
The Barren EweCheck scheme is available from vets until the end if March and MSD Animal Health will also be launching a FlockCheck diagnostic service, which will run until the end of July. The FlockCheck service involves taking blood samples from between six and eight aborting ewes.
Mr McGurren said: “The 2012 FlockCheck results showed once again that the most commonly diagnosed causes of abortion in sheep continue to be EAE and toxoplasmosis, despite the availability of cost-effective vaccines.
“Over 300 samples were tested in 2012 of which 86% were positive for toxoplasmosis and 58% for enzootic abortion. Over 50% of the samples showed exposure to both these diseases.” But he said it is essential farmers remain vigilant for signs of SBV infection once the lambing season is in full swing. “It is vital that producers report any unusual signs to their vet as soon as possible, but to avoid a confused picture it is as important to rule out other disease problems at the same time,” he said.
Meanwhile, Defra has issued its annual guidance for pregnant women during the lambing season because they and their unborn child face health risks from infections in some ewes, cattle and goats. Defra said pregnant women should:
VNot help to lamb ewes, or to provide assistance with a cow that is calving or a nanny goat that is kidding
VAvoid contact with aborted or new-born lambs, calves or kids or with the afterbirth, birthing fluids or materials (eg bedding) contaminated by such birth products
VAvoid handling (including washing) clothing, boots or any materials that may have come into contact with animals that have recently given birth, their young or afterbirths
Vnsure partners attending lambing ewes or other animals giving birth take appropriate health and hygiene precautions, including the wearing of personal protective equipment and adequate washing to remove any potential contamination.
It advised that pregnant women seek medical advice if they experience fever or influenza-like symptoms, or if they are concerned that they could have acquired infection from a farm environment.