Driving down lameness levels – an expert opinion

There’s no excuse for untreated lame sheep, said Prof Laura Green, FAWC member and professor of epidemiology at Warwick University.

In March 2011 the Farm Animal Welfare Council, now the Farm Animal Welfare Committee, published its Opinion on Lameness in Sheep. Evidence was gathered from research and expert opinion.

We concluded that lameness is a common and persistent problem in most sheep flocks.

Lame sheep experience pain and, if left untreated (which is illegal in Great Britain), the unnecessary pain and suffering means the sheep does not have a life worth living.

Farmers and vets are concerned about the welfare implications of lame sheep, but despite recent research on sheep lameness, there is evidence of varying degrees of knowledge among farmers and vets on how to treat and prevent it.

We believe much more could be done to treat lame sheep using existing knowledge.

Lameness control programmes are important in lowland and extensive grazing systems and should include the provision of correct facilities, labour and vet or technical advice to maintain low levels of flock lameness with the minimum amount of interventions, while being able to target even mildly lame individuals to minimise individual sheep pain and suffering. 

Six key observations

1. The best evidence suggests the average level of lameness in sheep flocks is about 10%, but this varied between flocks from <1% – 18%.

2. Sheep farmers can recognise lame sheep quite easily, but not all sheep farmers treat lame sheep promptly.

Some left sheep untreated for weeks. The longer farmers left lame sheep untreated, the higher the numbers of lame sheep in a group.

3. Farmers often call any foot damage foot-rot and might ask for advice on managing foot-rot when they have another disease in their sheep.

4. But, the most common cause of lameness was foot-rot and interdigital dermatitis (often called scald or strip), both caused by one species of bacteria.

There was strong evidence from research and experience that foot-rot and scald could be treated with a long-acting injection of oxytetracycline given at 1ml/10kg and a topical antibacterial spray applied to all four feet. More than 95% of sheep recovered when given this treatment.

5. The most common explanation for high levels of lameness in sheep flocks was lack of treatment, which is an infringement of the Welfare of Animals Act 2006.

There is no excuse for untreated lame sheep in a flock. Sheep unresponsive to treatment should be killed humanely.

6. FAWC recommended industry benchmark levels of lameness regularly and seek reduction in levels of lameness. FAWC also recommended a national target of 5% reduction by 2016 and 10% by 2021.

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For more information see our Stamp Out Lameness campaign page.