24 August 2001

Scrapie threat to reputation

By Jeremy Hunt

COMMERCIAL lamb producers may soon struggle to sell their lambs unless they are sired by scrapie-free rams, believes Staffs sheep breeder John Holme.

Mr Holme has been using only the best scrapie-free RR status rams for the past two years. "The industry has had such a battering with BSE and foot-and-mouth. Scrapie will be the next thing which could hit our reputation."

To ensure his own pedigree Suffolk flock makes rapid progress to achieve scrapie-free status, he was the first English flock owner to gain a DEFRA licence to bring a ram across the border from Scotland since F&M.

As an indication of Mr Holmes determination to buy the best RR Suffolk ram he could afford, he undertook a 1000-mile round trip from Staffs to Aberdeen and completed the one-day marathon with an eight-hour non-stop drive home to meet DEFRAs strict movement order.

Mr Holme, who runs the Romany flock of 30 pedigree Suffolk ewes at Lane Farm, Butterton, Leek, realised that the cancellation of auction sales this season presented him with a rare opportunity to buy a ram of superior quality. One that in a normal year would be snapped up in the sale ring.

And, if he could tap into the Suffolk genetics from the breeds most famous flock and combine that with an RR status ram, he would be taking a giant step forward.

"But DEFRA told me it would be impossible to bring a ram into England from Scotland. They said it was a prohibited movement, but did agree to send me the licence application," says Mr Holme.

Butterton is in a clean area and the location of the Scottish flock was also in a clean area. Mr Holme spent two weeks trying to persuade DEFRA officials to permit the movement. After making strict requirements covering vehicle cleansing and the route to be taken, DEFRA finally agreed.

Taking a co-driver – to enable the homeward journey to be completed without stopping – Mr Holme set-off for Aberdeenshire to select a ram from the Mair familys Muiresk flock at Turriff, having identified possible rams from a video.

"I selected a ram from one of the flocks best families and he was an RR. In normal circumstances I would not be able to buy a ram of this calibre.

"By using only RR rams, I can theoretically achieve RR standard for 90% of my flock within three years."

The flock has applied to join the DEFRA National Scrapie Plan. All ewes bought-in over the past two years have been RR; any of the home-bred ewes that do not achieve RR status will not be bred from.

Scrapie blood testing will begin in the flock next year. "Pedigree breeders have a job to educate commercial lamb producers to use RR rams."

But F&M restrictions have forced a change in the usual AI arrangements for the flock. In an attempt to reduce costs, Mr Holme usually transports his ewes to the Hulme familys Crosemanor flock in Shropshire to share AI services.

To overcome movement restrictions this year, the flock has been sponged and will be naturally served in small numbers.

"We have sponged ewes in batches – say, three or four – and then given the tup a days rest before turning him out with another bunch of ewes. It will still enable us to keep to a fairly tight lambing.

"AI means lambs all grow together and disease resistance is so much better because animals are the same age.

"Farming will survive this crisis, but producers must regain their confidence quickly. We have a reputation for the finest stock in the world and I believe we can quickly regain that reputation, but we must be seen to be tackling the scrapie issue head-on." &#42

RAM BUYING

&#8226 Opt for scrapie resistance.

&#8226 Ram movements possible.

&#8226 Breed with resistant ewes.