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EVENT: Open day at Connachan promotes open OPA discussions

A group of people in an empty cattle shed, listening to a speaker at the front of the building.

Over 100 farmers gathered at Connachan on Wednesday 28th August for the Moredun, National Sheep Association (NSA) and MSD Animal Health national hill sheep event, kindly hosted by Mary McCall Smith and Scott MacAulay.

The launch of the new Moredun film on OPA control was first off, produced by Simon Cousins and filmed at Connachan, where thoracic ultrasound scanning over a three year period has shown to have reduced the number of positive scans year on year. The key to beating this disease is by acknowledging that it is a problem and doing something about it. The launch of the film created much interest and discussion on the day which centred on how this technique can be applied to both commercial and pedigree flocks to reduce the incidence of disease and decrease risk for potential buyers. The film will now be made freely available for industry to use to promote open and honest discussions on OPA and decide on the best strategy for disease control.


FILM: OPA Control - Research and Diagnosis



The event was then opened by NSA’s Phil Stocker with strong and positive messages to the hill sheep farming sector and a pledge of support through difficult times.

“Being silent is now not an option and we have to be vocal and strong on the positive benefits of sheep production in the hills. We need to work with the climate change agenda and draw out the accurate science that takes carbon sequestration in grasslands and upland grazings into account.”

- Phil Stocker, NSA

Outlining the most critical challenges facing the sheep industry, Phil had positive responses for them all:

  • Global warming and climate change: "Our extensively farmed uplands are significant carbon stores, mainly permanent pasture, rarely if ever ploughed or cultivated and producing high quality and enjoyable food from plants we can’t digest and from land that can grow little else."
  • Diet related illness, obesity, diabetes and feeding a growing population sustainably: “Lamb and mutton consumption entirely fits the 'eat less meat but better quality' agenda and the best way to fight back against untried and untested veganism claims is to get behind sensible eating messages."
  • Biodiversity and species abundance: “Traditional and extensive systems have a symbiotic relationship with biodiversity and ecology. If you remove livestock you get a rapid expansion of aggressive and dominant vegetation, which reduce biodiversity and wildlife opportunities.”

The many other positive roles of sheep farming in driving local economies and supporting rural communities and in supporting rural infrastructure and tourism were included and “what about wool?” - one of the most sustainable, undervalued and underutilised fibres on earth.

“I believe sheep farming in the hills can win the sustainability argument and that the long term future for this industry and way of life can be and should be positive.  However, much of our future will depend on reputation and quality. For our sheep, improving health status will not only improve our reputation but will reduce waste, improve resource use, lead to a better quality product and reduce our carbon footprint. NSA, working in partnership with others such as the Moredun Foundation, will continue working hard to make sure sheep farming remains an important and valued way of life in our uplands.”

- Phil Stocker, NSA

Following on from such an inspiring opening speech, the afternoon continued in a positive vein, focussing on something we can all improve on, disease prevention as the key to increasing efficiency.

OPA, or Jaagsiekte, is being flagged as one of the biggest threats to sheep farming, so Moredun’s research into this disease and mechanisms for control has become critically important. The first workshop discussed OPA control by thoracic scanning followed by culling of positive sheep. Results were presented from three years of research on fourteen sheep farms (scanning >12,000 sheep per annum) and showed a decrease in the number of positive scans, and therefore culled sheep, each subsequent year of scanning. Following this, open discussions took place on tackling OPA in sheep flocks between scientists and farmers, but also importantly, between farmers. Biosecurity is going to be a large part of disease control in relation to OPA and questions arose relating to how the scanning could be best used. This could be in the form of individual sheep scanning of bought-in or for sale animals, or whole flock scanning for test and cull, which is clearly the best option for long term disease reduction and enables culling out at a time when the sheep is still in good condition, so has an economic value, and before it spreads too much virus. An industry 'monitored' flock scheme to denote lower risk animals was an idea that was discussed and thought to be potentially useful to the industry.

A vaccination workshop with lots of lively discussion was practical and informative and focussed on how to care for vaccines and administer them for best effect, including what “not to do”. There was a lot of “How many of you….?” questions! A biosecurity based station then demonstrated Moredun’s pen-side sheep scab diagnostic, on its way to commercialisation. Farmer led discussion concluded that such a useful tool could be a game changer for sheep scab control. This workstation also costed two common diseases in sheep flocks - enzootic abortion outbreaks and flock lameness – and compared this with the cost of vaccination programmes. This was a very interesting exercise which highlighted the benefits of correctly applied vaccination programmes in increasing efficiency - we all know what we need to do! The afternoon was complete with tasty lamb burgers, provided by the Kitchen Farmer and kindly sponsored by MSD Animal Health, where conversations continued.

“We were delighted at the support from the hill sheep sector for this event, where there was a real buzz of determination and optimism. Moredun will continue to support the sheep sector by helping increase livestock efficiency and reduce disease, through Knowledge Exchange events and outputs, such as the new OPA film we launched today, looking at the use of thoracic scanning to reduce the impact of OPA in flocks.”

- Lee Innes, Director of Communications at Moredun

Mary McCall Smith, farmer at Connachan, said “We would like to thank all the farmers who took time out at a busy time of year to address this most important issue for the sheep sector.”


Images available from [email protected]