27 July 2001

NSP shows government is serious about scrapie

By Marianne Curtis

ERADICATING scrapie from the national sheep flock is the objective of a bold new government initiative launched last week.

The first phase of the National Scrapie Plan (NSP) will target sheep breed society members in an attempt to gauge level of interest in genotyping to establish flocks resistant to the disease. Forms have already been sent out, says Tom Stafford, of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

"Forms ask for information such as name, address and flock size, enabling us to establish a database. Returning them does not mean you are committed to signing up for the plan."

Follow-up mailings will provide more details of scheme rules and find out convenient times for blood sampling sheep. "Although contracts are not yet finalised, they will require producers to agree not to use the most scrapie susceptible sheep for breeding."

There are 15 possible genotypes which indicate levels of scrapie susceptibility. Some breeds are almost totally resistant, whereas others show varying degrees of susceptibility, says Mr Stafford.

"For some breeds there is insufficient data to draw meaningful conclusions about susceptibility. The scheme will hopefully provide data on hundreds of thousands more sheep."

But producers unsure about whether their flocks will prove susceptible, possibly devaluing breeding stock, should still come forward and can contact the NSP information centre for advice, says Mr Stafford.

"Recommended breeding policy may be relaxed for these flocks to give them time to breed up to improved resistance."

Flock owners participating in the scheme will have all stock rams and a proportion of ram lambs genotyped, at no cost, which involves blood sampling sheep and administering an electronic bolus for identification. "Using boluses removes the risk of identification being tampered with."

NSP certificates of genotype will be issued and producers contracted to breed from rams with the more resistant genotypes, according to DEFRA.

The Suffolk Breed Society is urging its 1450 members to sign up. "Many flocks have been testing for 5-6 years and about 15,000 Suffolk sheep have been tested so far. When testing first became available it cost £120, but this has gradually reduced to £14. Free testing will provide a greater incentive," says society secretary Penny Lawrence.

National Sheep Association chief executive John Thorley is confident that the NSP means scrapie can be eliminated within a decade. "In 10 years only a minute proportion of the national flock will remain susceptible to the disease."

Most important breeds will sign up and numerically smaller breeds will recognise the need to keep up, he adds. "NSP offers the opportunity to breed a national flock that will be highly resistant to spongiform encephalopathies of all kinds.

"It is vital that the UK sheep industry adopts the scheme, if it is serious about maintaining a competitive edge in European and world markets."

Whether scrapie resistant sheep will command a premium, however, remains unclear. "There is anecdotal evidence that resistant sheep made more at sales last year," says Miss Lawrence.

But price will be dictated by the prevelance of resistant genes within a breed, believes Mr Thorley.

"Where there is a high prevelance of resistant genes, the price will be unaffected, but where there is a low prevelance it is bound to increase price differentials." &#42

SCRAPIEPLAN

&#8226 Aims to eradicate scrapie.

&#8226 Genotyping pedigree rams.

&#8226 Breeding from resistant stock.