Sheep Health and Welfare Group (SHAWG) conference - Online

Date: 24th November 2020

Location: Online webinar

On Tuesday 24th of November, the last ever SHAWG conference was held for the first time virtually. Charles Sercombe welcomed everyone, highlighting the purpose of this event in working together to promote and continue to build on improved sheep health and welfare in the UK.

Charles Sercombe comments: “I believe that we do have a world class sheep industry in the UK compared with many other places… We have the very best sheep and some of the very best sheep farmers. We should be proud to be part of the world leading industry.”

Fiona Lovatt (sheep vet), Lesley Stubbings (sheep consultant) and sheep farmers Kevin Harrison and Clare Wise opened the event with an interactive picture of ‘What responsible medicine use looks like on farm’. Fiona kicked off by highlighting old practices of using antibiotics preventatively and use of anthelmintics routinely, practices which have now (hopefully) changed. It is all about the science and science moves on which makes us able to change what we can do. Kevin Harrison comments: “Don’t be embarrassed to try it. You need to give it a go and see it working on your farm, sometimes to believe it". Fiona stressed the importance of the correct use of antibiotics and Lesley covered the equivalent for anthelmintics. The number of times we use antibiotics and anthelmintics significantly effects resistance, as well as the effective dose used (never underdose as this encourages resistance). There are not necessarily fixed rules for everyone, it is dependent on your farm and farm management.  Target medicine if risks are high and avoid unnecessary medicine if risks are low. The discussion then moved onto the importance of nutrition and biosecurity in line with the SHAWG moto of ‘Plan, Prevent and Protect the animals we look after’. Ewe condition and nutrition underpin everything – “Look after the ewe and she’ll look after you”. The group emphasized the importance of biosecurity plans for bringing in stock such as: buying from know sources, looking at health status of the bought in stock, treating and quarantining appropriately before introducing them to your flock. All this work requires trust in science, good stockmanship, support networks and monitoring. Your business is only as good as the advice you get, so talk to the right people, those who are passionate about their work, engage with your vet and chat to other farmers.  To summarise, everyone can do something – take your time, build your confidence, remember every farm is different, go at achievable pace, track your progress, and ultimately enjoy the results!

After a short break, session two focused on the priority areas for the sheep industry that have come out of the latest SHAWG 2020 report (available at: .) . Jasmeet Kalar (Vet and Professor of Epidemiology and Precision Livestock Informatics at the University of Nottingham) explored ‘Understanding and influencing behaviour - adopting good practice’. She considered how understanding behaviour changes can help us influence behaviour to increase adoption of good practices by both farmers and their advisors. Jasmeet linked her research to ‘behavioural fatigue’ or relying on common sense, which doesn’t always have the desired outcome, examples of which we have seen during the covid-19 pandemic. She also examined the role of sheep vets and barriers such as motivation, capability and opportunity impacting on time spent on their sheep advisory role.  She concluded with decisions that are effective can be slow and gradual as well as fast nudges. Next, Sam Boon (Manager of Signet Breeding Services at AHDB), discussed ‘Breeding for health and welfare’. Genetic opportunities and future genomic options to increase sheep health and welfare, as well as the role of performance recording were reviewed.  Of interest was continued AHDB research on breeding for worm resistance, building upon the current saliva and FEC work and SRUC investigating ‘windows for weighing’ to get most accurate improvements. Sam summarised by stressing the importance for sharing knowledge and data as an industry to make future improvements. Finally, Alex Corbishley (Vet and Senior Lecturer in Farm Animal Practice at the University of Edinburgh), shared the findings from a two-year joint levy funded project on lamb survival and improved performance. He highlighted that there were no associations of flock size, any single management practice or staffing with lamb survival. The main challenges were practical barriers (housing, staffing and increased costs), cultural barriers and social discomfort of talking about lamb losses. They found that lamb survival was dependant on the ewe, specifically poor ewe protein level (albumin) increased losses between scanning and 24h, and poor ewe energy balance predicted poor lamb colostrum status resulting in lambs being of increased risk for poor growth. Interviews suggested that there is a high level of motivation for improvements and recognition of the financial and emotional benefits associated with lamb survival, suggesting general confidence in neonatal mortality but room for improvement with new metrics.

The final session of the event was chaired by NSA’s very own CEO Phil Stocker, on ‘Coordinating a future vision for ruminant health and welfare. Nigel Miller (Vet, Farmer and Chair of Ruminant Health and Welfare) introduced the future vision for Ruminant Health and Welfare (RHWG), which integrates and replaces SHAWG. The dynamic duo had a very interactive session with the audience discussing diseases of concern in the sheep sector, those with biggest impact on animal welfare, biosecurity, importance of body condition, importance of communication with vets and even potential positive effect on climate change with increased efficiency. Phil concluded: “Sheep health is the foundation of good welfare in our UK sheep flock. It will lead to improved productivity and profitability levels, will work to reduce our environmental footprint and give us an increased sense of pride. Good health and welfare help improve the public (and farmers) perception of sheep farming, which helps with policy support for our industry and aids development of future trade agreements. Our industry is in really good stead for future. The UK is tiny in size, but we are the third largest sheep exporter in the world – therefore we are very good at it and have the infrastructure soundly in place. I do believe we can build on this to continue to create and maintain our sheep farming community in harmony with our landscape and the future objective of nature recovery, alongside delivering a huge range of public goods. It’s a rocky road but we can do it”.

Charles closed the days event, thanking all those involved for their continued support over the past years and all the speakers and chairs today.

For anyone that missed the event or wants to access the sessions again, they can be found at: These are available for 3 months from 24/11/2020.