With an estimated 2 million sheep in Ireland, maintaining the health of all herds is vital.
As a sheep farmer, there are many things you can do that will keep disease and ill-health to a minimum across the country.
All recommendations are generally based around five concepts that aim to keep herds healthy, happy and productive. The chairperson of the Irish Farm Animal Welfare Advisory Council (FAWAC), Professor Patrick Fottrell, has listed these five concepts as the ‘Five Freedoms’ of sheep herds:
- Freedom from thirst, malnutrition and hunger.
- Freedom from discomfort.
- Freedom from pain, disease and injury.
- Freedom to express normal patterns of behaviour.
- Freedom from distress and fear.
It’s believed that adhering to these guidelines can result in the best possible welfare of your animals, and will contribute to your herd being as efficient and productive as possible.
Signs of Health Problems
Detecting illness in your herd is a fulltime job. Sheep need to be inspected as often as possible, even once a day if time allows, and good awareness is needed to spot any strange changes. Keeping note of your herds usual patterns of behaviour can help you identify when something is just not right. For example, farmers should keep an eye out for:
- Loss of appetite
- Discharge from nostrils or eyes
- Cessation of cudding
- Rapid weight loss
- Swollen joints
- Excessive scratching
- Abnormal posture
- Extreme wool loss
- Unusual abscesses or wounds
- Lack of normal movement
- Withdrawal from the flock
You should always avail of a vet's advice when in doubt about your sheep's welfare. If you notice any of the changes mentioned, do not ignore it.
This horizontally contagious disease comes from the same strain as BSE (Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies) and fortunately cases of infection are low in Ireland at the moment. However, most cases have been identified in the South East region of the country.
The disease is considered fatal.
Lambing time is when herds are particularly susceptible to scrapie.
Animals in slaughterhouses and knackeries are consistently screened for this disease, after the EU introduced a comprehensive testing regime.
However, it’s recommended that farmers still keep an eye out for signs of the illness and that they are aware it can develop very slowly.
Behavioural changes, tremors, bad coordination, excessive scratching, weight loss, biting of limbs, gait abnormalities, lip-smacking, and convulsive episodes at the onset of stress stimulators are all possible symptoms of scrapie.
- Enterotoxaemia Type C (Bloody Scours)
This can develop as one of two forms. The first form is also called Struck and mainly affects adult sheep. No clinical symptoms are normally visible. However, necropsy will show ulcerations of the small intestine.
The second form of this disease is Enterotoxic Haemorrhagic Enteritis which affects young sheep. It usually manifests in the very early days of life and affects the small intestine. The main symptom is usually bloody diarrhoea. The disease can be fatal, but can be prevented by good hygiene at parturition. Udder cleanliness is a big factor in preventing this disease.
- Enterotoxaemia Type D
This is another possible disease in this strain of illness. Also called pulpy kidney (or over-eating disease), it’s commonly seen in young lambs who are on high carbohydrate diets, weaned in feedlots, or even fed on lush pastures. The illness is caused by a sudden toxic reaction in the gut, and symptoms can include jarred, uncoordinated movements or convulsions.
Also called lockjaw, this is a bacterial infection where germs have entered the sheep's body through broken skin. Many tetanus cases are the results of tail-docking and castration. The use of rubber bands in these processes is thought to contribute to the contraction of Tetanus. Muscle spasms and rigid movement are some symptoms of the disease and unfortunately treatment is usually not successful. As this disease can be transmitted to humans, extra care is recommended when handling affected animals. Good hygiene and vaccinations can prevent outbreaks such as these.
Some other diseases to watch out for are Soremouth (characterised by lesions in and around the mouth), parasites (can be external or internal, weight loss and upset digestive systems are symptoms), Footrot (noticed by lameness or no willingness to move even at feeding times), and any abscesses around the lymph nodes or other areas.
It’s important that your herd is living in a suitable area that tends to their natural needs and protects them from unnecessary stress. According to the Health and Safety Act of 1989, suitable handling facilities are vital to the safety of both livestock and farmers. Only pens and crushes where animals can be easily restrained with minimal distress should be used.
Try to keep the right number of sheep in your care. Overcrowding can be detrimental to the welfare of your herd. The density of sheep housing should reflect the level of attention and time that can be given to sheep, the competence of the farmer, the farm’s capacity, and the suitability of the sheep’s environment. For example, the kind of weather and terrain that sheep will face should match with the breed’s abilities, especially in rocky mountainous areas where hardier sheep are required.
The housing of your sheep is important throughout the whole of the year. Winter housing is especially important, as the herd will likely be in extremely close proximity for long periods of time. There must be correct ventilation that will ensure adequate fresh air without unwanted draughts.
Floor space should be comfortable enough for sheep to live without the distress of sleep-deprivation and injury. Flooring should be monitored and maintained as frequently as possible. Proper drainage in housing is necessary for the hygiene and health of sheep and dry bedding should be consistently provided for the welfare of the herd. Take note of the fact that it is recommended to never house new-born lambs on slatted floors!
Lighting is another important factor for housing sheep correctly. Not only is sufficient access to light important for the inspection of the herd, but it also ethically and physiologically necessary for sheep to have enough exposure to natural light during the day. Where artificial light must be used, it’s important to give your sheep a sufficient break at night.
According to the FAWAC, the recommended guideline for holding pens is to use fenced paddocks, avoid square pens, with a maximum width of 4.5m. The space should allow 0.5 sq. metres per ewe.
Regarding handling facilities, it’s encouraged that farmers choose locations that are within the proximity of the grazing area, with easy access. Proper drainage, a sloping site, a good water supply and plenty of shelter and shade are recommended. If the farm is particularly large or divided, more than one handling area is suggested by the FAWAC.
Creating proper boundaries on the farm is crucial to the safety of the herd. Fencing should be kept to a good standard to save sheep from possible entanglement, especially when mesh fences are used around horned animals. The strength of electric fences should be kept at a level that causes sheep only the minimum amount of discomfort needed to deter them.
Hygiene and Vaccinations
To keep on top of any issues within the herd, it’s recommended that proper records are updated by the farmer. Such records that hold a lot of importance are the Sheep Flock Register, Animal Remedies Record, and Animal Feed Records. As a nation, this kind of data can assist in the promotion of good health for all sheep.
Good hygiene habits should be practiced by all farmers, especially when dealing with vulnerable situations like pregnant ewes and lambing procedures. All equipment should be thoroughly clean, and pens should be well-maintained. Infections can spread easily if unclean bedding is used for new lambs.
The disposal of fallen stock is extremely important in this day and age. Strict guidelines are enforced in Ireland which insist that dead farm animals are properly removed without too much delay. Sheep that have died on the farm are to be collected by approved organisations. In cases where transporting the carcass is extremely difficult, burying on-site is allowed, so long as the correct licence is availed of.
Any sheepdogs used in assisting farmers should be regularly wormed and inspected for parasitic disease.
Farmers should be aware of how much contact their herd has with wildlife, other farm animals, and also the level of vehicles coming in and out of their area. Isolation programmes may be needed for times when quarantine is necessary. Farmers should have access to a facility that restricts all contact between the affected sheep and other animals for a minimum of 30 days. Separate water supplies should be used at this time.
In the case of aborted foetuses or placentas, it’s important that extra care is taken! Contact with these materials by humans can be dangerous, and it is reported that all infectious pathogens that cause abortion in sheep can be contracted by people.
Vaccinations can be extremely helpful to herds, but it’s important to remember that not all sheep are eligible for all vaccines. Only healthy livestock should be given vaccinations, and even so, it’s important to know that the existence of a certain vaccine doesn’t mean it’s going to benefit your sheep. Clear and thorough discussion with your veterinarian about the risks and lifestyle of your sheep is needed to determine what vaccinations will help or hinder your herd.
Clostridial vaccines are the only vaccines recommended for use on a wide-scale ‘blanket’ basis, where it is delivered to nearly all sheep in a herd. Clostridium perfringens Types C and D and tetanus (CD&T) should be provided to sheep at appropriate times only.
If sheep farmers decide to alter their feeding habits, it should be done over a gradual period of time, to help the herd adjust.
Helping ewes to gain weight before breeding, or ‘flushing’, often enhances the ability to conceive.
Minerals and salts should be provided to sheep as much as possible, whether mixed in with feed, loose, or in a block. The types of minerals given to the herd should be specific to their own needs and breed.
Supplements are important prior to breeding, during late gestation and lactation.
Be aware of the copper content in feed. Copper toxicity can be dangerous for sheep and those affected quite often show no signs of illness prior to death.
Shearing should always be done at the appropriate times, to prevent unnecessary distress in sheep during hot weather.
The matter of tail-docking is one that should be given lengthy consideration. It is never recommended to routinely dock tails, unless there is a serious and extreme threat of fly strike. If tail-docking is necessary, then it should be done before the age of seven days.
Castration is another issue that needs to be given serious thought. A farmer needs to know if it is actually worth doing, especially if lambs will be slaughtered before reaching the reproductive age. As well as tail-docking, castration should be carried out before the lamb is seven days old.