EVERY lambing season is challenging, says Paul Kirkwood of Paragon Vets. The weather can be unpredictable, costs are rising every year and unfortunately there are always losses. It is now September and all sheep farmers will be in different stages of breeding but everyone will have one eye on lambing. Minimising losses is more important than ever as farming along with every other industry tries to be more sustainable and more productive as we try to tackle the global climate crisis. Farmers and vets have a key role in food production and we need to maximise the efficiency of our farms to feed the ever growing population whilst also reducing our impact on the environment.

In 2020 during the first quarter of the year, the two main causes of abortion accounted for nearly 62 percent of all abortions diagnosed by APHA. These infectious abortive agents are Chlamydophila abortus/Enzootic abortion (42 percent) and toxoplasma gondii (20 percent).

Toxoplasma gondii is a parasite and the main source of infection is cat faeces. Although a lot of farms have cats, many do not or at least think they don’t but feral cats are very common and this will increase the risks of abortion. A single cat can shed enough of the parasite to infect thousands of ewes! There is roughly a 6 week lag between infection and onset of clinical signs. With this in mind, you may see a higher number of barren ewes if they are infected early in pregnancy and later on you will see more abortions, stillbirths and weak lambs born. Another very important point to keep in mind is that Toxoplasma and Chlamydophilia are both zoonotic diseases and it can be transmitted to humans and cause a life threatening illness or cause serious harm to an unborn child during pregnancy. Chlamydophilia abortus is a bacteria and the main source of infection is placenta and birthing fluids around lambing time. It is transmitted from sheep to sheep and generally the ewes are infected during the lambing period so they may have normal lambs born but then issues arise e.g. abortion during the subsequent lambing period. This is a very important point when buying in ewe lambs or ewes as if your flock is naïve and ‘carrier’ ewes are brought onto the farm this can result in an abortion storm the following year. Similar to toxoplasma, Chlamydophilia can cause an increase in barren ewes, mummified lambs, still births and weak lambs born.

Toxoplasmosis and enzootic abortion can decimate the number of healthy lambs sold each year which will negatively impact the business, not only financially but the knock on effect of not enough replacements and the mental strain this puts on farmers. Luckily, vaccination is a very simple way of preventing abortions caused by toxoplasma and chlamydophilia. Both vaccines are administered a month pre-tupping so as I have mentioned above preparation is key! The Toxoplasma vaccine is specifically made when it is ordered so planning and working out weeks before you need it will ensure that the vaccine can be ordered and will arrive in good time.