A WELL-attended meeting of farmers last week heard about a new research initiative to look into how much hidden health problems in Welsh sheep flocks could be costing the industry.

The research is a Welsh pilot study, in partnership with Edinburgh University and Liverpool University, following on from recent findings in England by the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board (AHDB), involves taking blood tests from ewes before tupping and before lambing.

It will examine the incidence of Johne’s disease, a condition which is difficult to detect but has significant implications for the health of both sheep and cattle, as well as liver fluke and antibiotic resistance.

The programme is part of the Stoc+ project, which encourages pro-active flock and herd health management and is one strand of Hybu Cig Cymru – Meat Promotion Wales (HCC)’s Red Meat Development Programme (RMDP) – a five-year Welsh Government and European Union-funded initiative aiming to enhance the red meat sector in Wales.

This work was presented to an audience of farmers as part of the innovative farming for a sustainable future events which were organised by HCC and held last week in Coleg Sir Gâr, Fferm Gelli Aur and Coleg Meirion-Dwyfor, Fferm Glynllifon.

“Johne’s disease is recognised as a major production-limiting condition and previous studies by AHDB suggest that the bacteria is present in a number of English and Scottish flocks, but unfortunately disease prevalence remains unknown in Wales.

"This highlights the importance and the need for the current study,” explained Dr Rebekah Stuart, HCC flock and herd health executive, who spoke at Gelli Aur.

“The lack of symptoms in sheep can lead to culling the animals without further diagnosis or consultation with a vet.

"Blood testing the 41 Welsh farms will help identify the disease prevalence on farms and enable farmers to take action with disease control.

"In the long-term, pro-active health planning improves farm sustainability and efficiency and extend the already high welfare standards in Wales.”

Three other speakers joined Rebekah at Gelli Aur - agricultural researcher Non Williams, innovative farmer Aled Picton Evans and HCC communications manager Owen Roberts.

In Glynllifon, Gwawr Parry, the HCC flock genetics executive, gave an update on all three RMDP projects and she was joined by Alwyn Phillips of Pengelli Farm, Caernarfon and HCC market development manager Rhys Llywelyn.

Owen Roberts and Rhys Llywelyn both gave an update on the multi-media sustainability campaign which is underway to inform consumers about the way Welsh lamb and Welsh beef is produced, in tune with the outstanding natural environment.