Scottish islands share sheep scab challenge solutions

Crofters from the Outer Hebrides keen to control livestock disease on their island, have visited Shetland to learn about a scheme targeting diseases including sheep scab.

The Lewis and Harris crofters visited the Shetland Animal Health Scheme to see how it works and meet key personnel, with support from scientists at The James Hutton Institute and Moredun Research Institute, as part of a collaborative project with the Scottish Government’s Centre of Expertise on Animal Disease Outbreaks (EPIC).

The Shetland scheme was set up to help manage biosecurity around imported livestock to protect the health of cattle and sheep on the island, including keeping it free of sheep scab, one of the most contagious endemic diseases affecting UK sheep.

The scheme includes veterinary surveillance and testing of all animals coming onto the island and community sheep dipping facilities. It is hoped that aspects of the scheme could be adopted on Lewis and Harris, which hosts an estimated 30-35,000 sheep, and potentially also on other islands and rural communities. 

The disease affects about 10-15% of farmers in the UK, with 8,000-10,000 outbreaks a year, costing an estimated £80,000 £200,000 million in lost production and control measures.

“Sheep scab hasn’t gone away, we’re seeing it occurring throughout Scotland and tackling it is very much about working together, which is why this visit is so important,” says Dr Claire Hardy, a Hutton researcher who led the visit. “The enthusiasm and passion of the Shetland stakeholders to control disease on their Island was clear to see. The positive vibe and offers of collaboration for the future will help the Lewis and Harris islanders to build on current sheep scab interventions and move forward on disease control for Lewis and Harris.”

“Sheep scab hasn’t gone away, we’re seeing it occurring throughout Scotland and tackling it is very much about working together, which is why this visit is so important”

Dr Claire Hardy, Hutton researcher
The Lewis and Harris crofters during their visit to Shetland.

Lewis and Harris Sheep Producers Association chair, Donald MacKinnon said: “We were very impressed with the set up in Shetland. The crofters and farmers we met take maintaining their health status extremely seriously. The single point of entry to Shetland provides a significant advantage over our three ports in Lewis and Harris but we still have an opportunity to try to implement a system that suits our situation.

“Getting on top of sheep scab and other diseases has obvious benefits for welfare and profitability of flocks. We were also interested to hear about the premium that it puts on stock from Shetland heading to the mainland.

“We left Shetland buzzing with ideas that we could take home and try out. One of our big challenges, that Shetland doesn’t have, is hoggs returning from wintering on the mainland. With hoggs due to come home soon, we will be working quickly to explore options for tackling the issue this season.”

Shetland Island Council Veterinary Advisor Hilary Burgess said the visitors were not daunted by 50mph winds and freezing rain while viewing the facilities on Shetland. They also had a chance to talk with Shetland farmers and crofters about use of the community dipper and their experiences and plans for control of sheep scab. 

“We very much hope that this will be the beginning of more joint working and co-operation on sheep scab control between farmers and crofters on Shetland, and Lewis and Harris,” she said, “and would very much welcome farmers and crofters from other islands getting involved. We are all working with the same aim to control sheep scab in our flocks and isles, and to produce quality clean sheep – so it makes sense to work together to get the best results.”

The visit follows workshops held with crofters by the Hutton and Moredun institutes on Lewis and Harris, which included discussing the challenges of sheep scab, which is caused by infestation with the sheep scab mite, and roundworm control. It was hosted by Shetland Island Council and included meetings with the Shetland Animal Health Committee and local farmers and crofters, as well as a visit to the testing facilities at Lerwick quayside and the community dipping facility.

The work is funded by EPIC, as well as the Scottish Government funded COMBINE (Co-designing and implementing best-fit farming practices) project and Livestock Health Scotland. 

Elaine Maslin, Media Officer, The James Hutton Institute, tel: +44 (0)1224 395076 or +44 (0)7977 805808