Saturday 26 June 2010

louping ill

What a grand name - Louping Ill! Guess the second word gives the game away just a tad, makes one imagine that this could well be some 'orrible disease........ well, you'd be right to assume that, it is indeed yet another of those wonderful sheep diseases. A disease which affects the nervous system of the sheep none the less, a disease which is passed on to the sheep by an external parasite.

Ticks are the cause of Louping Ill and a multitude of other nasties with names like tick pyeamia and tick borne fever to name but a few.

I mentioned in an earlier posting that an ex boss of mine used to say he felt he had a touch of louping ill at the close of the lambing time, basically he was implying he was weary, tired, drained, which is indeed how sheep will appear, until the symptoms worsen that is.

The tick believe it or not is an arachnid, spider. Eight legged little fella who loves to suck blood. Latching on to any warm blooded creature passing by and gorging on their blood, any one with a dog may have seen them if they've been walking where there is longer grasses and a tick has taken the opportunity to latch onto the dog and have a feed.

This year has seen quite a tick rise. There is a tick rise twice a year - Spring and Autumn. Once the temperature rises the ticks become active and again in the back end, should we get one of those Indian summers there will be a rise of ticks.

The similarities between this year and 2001 are quite interesting. In Feb 2001 (just as foot and mouth broke out) we here in Tarset had one hell of a snow fall, it came overnight and caught man and beast out, there seemed no warning we just woke up to masses of snow with drifts higher than myself. This year we've had a long duration of snow but not the drifts of 2001. However, there were still pockets of snow lying at lambing time in 2001 and it was a cold barren lambing just as it has been this year. The 10th May is a date forever etched in my head, just prior to that date the weather warmed up and a heat wave ensued. Again there was no grass just as the trend seems to be this year. Another great similarity was one hell of a tick rise. A population of ticks which seemed second to none - interesting!

I can't help but wonder how on earth these tiny spidery mites survive the hard winters. They seemingly live in the dead grasses waiting for the weather to warm up, they also have a three year life cycle and are able to lie dormant for a full year without feeding - clever little souls.

Both 2001 and 2010 saw hill ewes suffering due to the harsh weather of winter and the barren cold spring, it was a challenge to keep them fit, full and milky, trying to ensure they would be kind and motherly towards their lambs. You got them through the lambing and then the ticks hit and they can hit hard when they have a mind, they can hang off sheep like bunches of grapes and even if they don't pass on any dreadful disease they do suck the blood, leading to anaemia if nothing else.

So. Back to Louping Ill. It's actually a disease I haven't seen for a year or two but am pretty sure I saw a ewe suffering from it when gathering for lamb marking away out bye, she was left on the hill and I'm not aware of her outcome.

Years back when I was a full time shepherd here in Tarset I would often have a sheep with a touch of louping ill. Herding the hill after lambing time one had to be fairly gentle with the sheep, raking them in onto the sweeter ground in the mornings then setting them out to the higher ground at night you would easily spot if anything wasn't right. Occasionally a lamb would be sprightly, running on but looking back for it's mother. She may be trailing along, trying to keep up or just not capable of trailing along at all.

I had been trained to treat such sheep with respect, not to hassle them. Having said that I'd always handle them when first seen, to see if there were signs of blood rot or any other nasty. A sheep with louping ill would often tremble and ticks or the scars where they had been would be evident, although all it would take would be just one tick which was carrying the louping ill virus - you wouldn't need hordes of them attached to the sheep.

Once a diagnosis had been drawn I would in future keep well away from the affected animal. Do not stress her was what had been drilled into my little brain. It may take a few weeks but often the sheep rallied, she had been left quite out on the hill and if luck was with you she would pull through.

Many sheep carry a resistance to Louping Ill, they've probably had a mild attack and ended up with antibodies in their systems which are then passed on to their lambs in the future, that's probably why I've seen so little of the disease in recent years.

Spring dipping was carried out to try and prevent a tick infestation. As close to lambing time as possible the sheep were all plunge dipped, immersed in water containing chemicals which would prevent any external parasites from living and breeding on their hosts. Today pour on medications tend to be used, again close to lambing time and again with the intention of preventing the external parasites from doing what they're good at and passing on their germs at the same time.

This leads to another similarity to 2001, this being on a personal note and relating to a specific piece of hill ground. In 2001 I deemed it to be so cold pre lambing that I wouldn't use the preventative pour on for ticks, deciding to wait until the lamb marking as I felt a tick rise was unlikely early on. This decision was to be my downfall and I paid dearly. The farmer who has sheep on the self same ground this year has asked my advice. He has found his sheep are carrying a serious tick burden and wondered what he ought to have done. Nine years have gone by and this is the first time he has had major concerns regarding the ticks. He like I realises he ought to have treated the sheep pre lambing, fortunately for him he is farming the ground in 2010 and not 2001. Next year he will have the job right.