DEFRA HAS announced a consultation on its contingency plan should BSE be confirmed in sheep.

The worst-case scenario involves culling between 14m and 23m sheep from the UK national flock.

The exact number would depend on the time of year and the number of ewes tupped.

As yet there are no confirmed cases of BSE in sheep. But there is a theoretical risk that BSE could be present in sheep, masked as scrapie.

Andrew Gresham, DEFRA‘s veterinary scrapie adviser, confirmed that the department has found 60 cases of an unknown Transmissable Spongiform Encephalopathy (TSE) from about 65,000 sheep tested since 2002.

And John Krebs, head of the Food Standards Agency, has said previously that there may well be BSE in sheep but that the evidence does not exist to prove it and that “we simply don‘t know”.

But speaking after the consultation launch, junior DEFRA minister Ben Bradshaw said: “This is a contingency plan.

“We have no information which makes the government believe there is now a higher likelihood of BSE being in the sheep flock.

“If BSE was found in sheep, consumers, farmers and other stakeholders, including the EU, would expect us to have a plan.

 “The publication of this plan fits in with the government‘s increased emphasis on contingency planning and making such plans public.”

Later this year DEFRA, under the National Scrapie Plan, intends to launch a register of UK breeding flocks that will identify animal genotypes least susceptible to scrapie.

Sheep from the least susceptible genotypes in registered flocks would be spared any possible cull and used to supply breeding ewes to re-stock the national flock.

John Thorley, chief executive of the National Sheep Association said: “The NSA has consistently supported the concept and development of the National Scrapie Plan and takes the view that the science involved moves the UK flock towards a period when TSEs will be consigned to history.”

In the event of a cull being commenced, the animals would be disposed of through de-licensed slaughter houses, rendering, MBM and tallow disposal.

There are no plans to use landfill to dispose of the deadstock.