Approaching the new breeding season, great care must now be taken to ensure sheep scab does not become a problem on Irish sheep farms.
As farmers are introducing new stock to their farms from purchases at sheep sales, the transport of sheep between farms could also be spreading sheep scab.
Sheep scab is a notifiable condition in Ireland, which means outbreaks in flocks should be notified to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM).
It can cause major problems for farmers during a ewe’s pregnancy, but is a condition that can be managed, mainly through dipping.
Eric Driver, mart manager at Tullow Mart said: “I think for the general health of the sheep on the farm, the farmer is paid major dividends for dipping.”
While Driver acknowledged that dipping comes with health warnings for farmers, he added that “sheep that are dipped will respond immensely to it”.
“It’s very good for their health, for their skin health, for their hides and wool, but also for their thrive. It has major benefits.”
Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) Sheep Committee chair Kevin Comiskey said sheep scab is “something that we’ve been encountering a lot” recently.
“A lot of farmers and a lot of marts are discussing it and talking about it.”
Sheep scab can be seen throughout Ireland, but as recently as Saturday, August 27, it has disruption to agricultural shows in Scotland.
An agricultural show in Strathardle, Scotland was canceled on August 27, due to sheep scab, based on the “advice given from the local vets to the landowner of the agricultural show field”, according to Strathardle Highland Gathering and Agricultural Show.
“It is an issue out there and that’s one of the main reasons of the Sheep Improvement Scheme that we’re talking to the minister. We’ve proposed to him to include dipping in there for a payment,” Comiskey added.
“The most important thing is calling on the minister to support the dipping in the scheme and the forthcoming budget.”
Regarding dealing with sheep scab in marts, Driver said: “If we did think there was an issue with scab, we would go out, have a quiet word, and help the farmers.
“It is an issue, it’s there, and it’s not going away. We need to ensure that it’s managed.”
According to the animal health surveillance at DAFM, “sheep scab is a contagious, highly pruritic disease caused by the mite Psoroptes ovis”.
Affected sheep develop large, yellowish, scaly, crusted lesions accompanied by damage to the wool and hide.
“Emaciation and secondary bacterial infections can occur in untreated animals, pregnant sheep give birth to smaller lambs, and lambs that become infested may lose condition rapidly and die,” the DAFM has stated.
Signs of sheep scab include:
- Obvious restlessness in the flock;
- Sheep scratching against fence posts;
- Stained areas of wool;
- A pulled wool appearance leading to wool loss;
- Head tossing;
- Attempted biting.
Mite populations can build up under wool in the winter, and the combination of the demands of pregnancy, poor weather and itching caused by the scab mite can lead to rapid loss in appetite and body condition.
This can leave the ewe vulnerable to twin-lamb disease, a poor supply of colostrum at the point of lambing and lambs with birthweights lower than expected.
Additionally, feeding at troughs or housing sheep will create ideal conditions for the rapid spread of the sheep scab-causing mites through the flock and from one batch of sheep to the next.