Sheep Health, Wealth and Production Conference 2019 - NSA South East Region

Date: 20th November 2019

Location: School of Veterinary Medicine, Guildford, Surrey

The afternoon and evening of 20th November saw an eclectic mix of those with an interest in sheep farming gather at the University of Surrey, School of Veterinary Medicine, Guildford, for the South East Region’s Sheep Health Wealth and Production Conference.


The major theme running through the Health section of the programme was the critical importance of early and informed diagnosis of any problems. Whether this be for identifying scab in it’s early stages and differentiating it from lice, diagnosing the cause of sudden death in lambs, incipient ill  thrift in breeding stock  or a general failure of a production system to achieve expectations, we were offered invaluable  information ,tools and  advice to aid in decision making.

Peter Bates, independent parasitologist consultant, and Stewart Burgess from the Moredun Research Institute, gave an excellent expose on scab. This covered the nature of the beast and its debilitating effects upon the sheep, the use of the excellent ELISA early diagnostic test plus  ongoing developments of a pen side test and work being done on the potential for  vaccines.


Kat Baxter-Smith from MSD spoke about another easily transmitted disease, orf. In contrast to scab, there is an effective live vaccine available. Kat emphasised the absolute necessity of adopting the correct user protocol to ensure maximum efficacy.

This applies to all vaccines. How many supposed vaccine breakdowns are due to failure to follow clearly laid down manufacturer’s instructions? Bad storage in old fridges with no checks made on their operating temperature, using up old packs of vaccine and administration in the wrong place in the animal are the most frequent culprits.


Benedetta Amato, veterinary investigation officer at our host Vet  School, underlined the fact that the vast majority of lamb deaths are attributable to either parasitic gastroenteritis  or pneumonia…"always look at the obvious before searching for more exotic causes”. She then summarised some of the more frequently observed causes of adult mortality, finally stressing the need to submit ‘fresh’ samples to diagnostic laboratories to offer the best chance of achieving a diagnosis.

Drawing an example from her experience with a suckler herd, independent veterinary consultant Louise Silk elegantly demonstrated how basic information collected almost unknowingly in, for example, flock books, medicine records and slaughterhouse kill sheets, can, when pulled together and looked at by a trained eye, be used to identify problems. Every farmer has information available to him, without the need for sophisticated, time-consuming collection protocols in place, it just requires ‘unlocking’ to aid the making of informed decisions.


Ian Wilkinson, MD of Cotswold Seeds and founder of FarmED, an exciting new centre for farm and food education, gave what was described by one delegate as an “ awe inspiring “ presentation. He described the importance of pasture/plant associations to not only the health of grazing livestock by accessing minerals from deeper within the soil profile, not to mention moisture to mitigate any effect of drought, but to soil health by increasing organic matter content. This latter has obvious connotations for carbon sequestration, underlining the strength of the case for integration of grazing livestock within our farming systems.


The final session of the conference dealt with marketing. Firstly, Steven Evans, from AHDB, gave an insight into consumer behaviour and shopping habits and how their advertising campaigns are encouraging the use of lamb in a range of novel meals.

We then heard from experienced auctioneer Alastair Sneddon, from Bagshaws in Derbyshire, who reviewed the many roles performed by a livestock market. These are in addition to its primary function of providing a fully transparent method of sale for all classes of both live and deadstock, as well as affording the seller the all-important option to refuse to sell should the bid price be unacceptable.  In our ever more isolationist working environment, the social and welfare interactions facilitated by getting together on market day should not be underestimated.

Andrew Loftus, farmer and Director of SellMyLivestock, then briefly outlined the concept of their platform and how it has grown over the five years since it’s launch. Interestingly they are now developing links with livestock markets to offer the use of their sales platform, a move he sees as strengthening rather than undermining the services offered by traditional markets.

Norman Bagley, of the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS), was last to the podium. In characteristic style, he pulled no punches. He suggested that when, not if, subsidies are removed and income has to be derived solely from the marketplace, sheep production will be doomed if we have by then failed to open extensive new export markets across the world. All the advertising that we throw at the British public will fail to significantly increase consumption at a price that would allow unsubsidised production to be viable.