Sheep lameness can be a constant worry

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The time of year is approaching when we go for drives through the countryside on the lookout for lambs. However, what a lot of people aren’t aware of is that although sheep come into their own in the spring, there are a lot of challenges farmers face all year round.

Lameness is one of the most important issues affecting sheep, and has been identified as the greatest health concern in flocks — 97 per cent of UK farmers reported lameness, claiming an average of ten per cent of their sheep were lame.

Lameness is one of the most important issues affecting sheep, and has been identified as the greatest health concern in flocks.

People outside the farming world may be thinking ‘so what?’. Well, sheep are naturally prey animals and usually conceal signs of pain and discomfort. If these signs are evident, such as being visibly lame, the sheep is likely to be suffering.

Lameness can also have a massive knock-on effect. Lame sheep are often in poorer body condition as a result of being slower and less able to compete for food, meaning it’s longer until they reach a standard where they can be taken to market. They have decreased fertility and conception rates, being less likely to have lambs.

There are several causes of lameness, with two of the most common being interdigital dermatitis (scald) and footrot.

Scald is a condition in which bacteria infect food and cause the skin between the digits to become red and swollen, producing ooze. If this foot then becomes infected by another bacteria, it can develop into footrot. Footrot is a condition in which the walls of the hoof become overgrown and begin to detach from the rest of the foot, producing a foul smell.

For years it was believed that trimming sheep’s feet would control overgrowth and footrot. However, it alters the shape of the foot and provides the opportunity for bacteria to invade. Research shows that the best treatment is an injection of antibiotic as soon as lameness is noticed, antibiotic spray between the digits, and to leave overgrown feet to wear down naturally.

Infected sheep should be isolated and all sheep should be moved to a dry uninfected field. Footbaths are useful for preventing scald, but aren’t sufficient once sheep have footrot. Vaccines are another tool.

So next time you pass a field of sheep and spring lambs, try to appreciate the effort required to get to this stage and the constant pressure on the farmer to keep his flock in prime condition.

By Kate Murphy, Vet