Farmers in NI will be able to access free testing and treatment for sheep scab under a new control programme which was launched on Tuesday.

Local vet Paul Crawford said grant funding worth £220,000 has initially been secured for the first phase of the project.

“There is money for diagnosis, veterinary support and treatment. It will hopefully help get past any reluctance from farmers who might not want to participate,” he said.

Scab is a highly contagious disease in sheep which is caused by a mite. It can lead to itching, wool loss, reduced animal performance and welfare issues.

The new industry run project will be managed by Animal Health and Welfare NI (AHWNI) and private vets will be used to support farmers who report a suspected scab outbreak in their flock.

Crawford said blood samples will be taken by local vets and sent to Edinburgh-based company Biobest to detect both current and past infestations of scab.

He said plunge dipping sheep with organophosphate (OP) products will be the preferred method of treatment as there is evidence that some mites in Britain have developed resistance to injectable wormers.

“We have suspicions there could be resistant mites in NI too, but we can’t definitely prove it,” he said.

First phase

Under the initial phase of the project, there is a budget for around 100 flocks with scab outbreaks to receive testing, advice, and treatment for up to 500 ewes each. The project will also involve a series of information events for all NI flock keepers this autumn.

Although it is a notifiable disease, it is well accepted that cases of scab are under-reported to DAERA and so a key focus of the new project is to gather information about the extent of the disease in NI.

Crawford hopes that it will eventually lead to a programme that aims to completely eradicate sheep scab in NI.

“We first have to obtain relevant data which will give us a clearer picture of what is happening on farms across the country in terms of prevalence, spread and attitudes towards the disease,” he said.