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The JIGSAW of joint ill

The JIGSAW of joint ill – Fiona Lovatt, Flock Health Ltd

If lambing was kind to you this year then its memories are probably already fading, as you watch the lambs grow.  However if lambing went badly  - perhaps you were lambing early in the persistent rain or your necessary lambing staff didn’t arrive or you had an outbreak of joint ill - the memories will still be very raw and will not be erased until well after the passing of a happier lambing season.

Joint ill is one of the lambing challenges that exorcises both seasoned sheep farmers and vets alike.  Sporadic in nature and caused by different combinations of reasons, it is a frustrating disease that a few people will tell you was particularly bad this year.

Conventional wisdom suggested that joint ill was simply a disease of poor hygiene in the lambing shed with control primarily consisting of dipping navels in strong iodine.  Just a few conversations with shepherds, who either lamb outside or who keep fastidiously clean lambing sheds and are obsessive about navel dipping but still face too many stiff and hobbling lambs, soon convinces one that the reality is much more complicated.

Gradual piecing together of all the currently available evidence suggests that sources of the joint-ill bug, Streptococcus dysgalatiae, may include the ewe’s birth canal and her milk.  We know that the bug survives for up to six weeks on straw at cold temperatures and that cases tend to increase as lambing progresses.  Generally, within an affected flock, there are particular groups of ewes or lambing areas where there are higher numbers of cases.   And it will be no surprise that joint ill affects lamb growth rates and mortality (by 54g a day and 10% in a NZ study).  There are often additional management factors, such as the application of tags or rings for castration or tailing that seem to precipitate actual disease but this is definitely a disease that is exacerbated by a myriad of different factors.

One notable feature of comments from a number of the researchers is how joint ill is a disease that waxes and wanes within flocks so that just because a flock has a high number of cases one year, there is no guarantee that there will again be outbreaks in subsequent years.  It is concerning that a number of UK shepherds start giving antibiotic injections to baby lambs when they have a high joint ill year and then they continue this every subsequent year because they are too scared to stop.   They attribute the fact that they have low joint ill levels some years to this prophylactic use of antibiotic without realising that it can be perfectly normal to expect low numbers of cases of joint ill without mass treatments. 

To further unravel the complexities of joint ill, we have decided to pull together a working group Lamb JIGSAW (Joint Ill Group – Septic Arthritis aWareness).  The aim of this group is to improve the control of joint ill and its consequences to lamb welfare, to promote the responsible use of antibiotics and to reduce unnecessary costs due to joint ill on UK sheep farms.  The group will have two parts – one of interested UK sheep farmers, vets and consultants with the main aim of raising awareness of good practice principles and agreeing how to standardise and collate farm records to establish the real impact of the joint ill.  The second part aims to coordinate ongoing international research activities to ensure collaboration and synergy and to maximise the impact of any available funding.  

So if you are interested in our JIGSAW aims and you are a sheep farmer who is good at data recording or a company interested in investing in a joint ill vaccine, then please do get in touch with us via [email protected]

Otherwise if you are a UK sheep farmer, regardless of whether you do or do not experience joint ill outbreaks, please do complete this survey .  It should take between 15-20 minutes to complete the survey and there is a tempting prize draw to thank participants for their efforts.   The results will be so much more useful if there are lots of responses so please do take part.



About the author

Samuel Boon

Samuel Boon

I am the Manager of Signet Breeding Services, within the AHDB.

Enthusiast on all things genetics to do with sheep and cattle and currently also supporting Bridget Lloyd in running the @RamCompare progeny test with ~18,000 lambs/annum.

I am also involved with the:-

  • Relaunch of Terminal Sire Breeding Programmes (Sheep)
  • AHDB lead for the Welsh Sheep Breeding Project run by HCC - working with Innovis, HCC and Janet Roden
  • Database design and development for this website
  • National Sheep Breeds Survey
  • Development of Carcase Trait EBVs in Beef Cattle
  • Formerly involved with the delivery of the Welsh Sheep Strategy, Northern Upland Sheep Strategy, Suckler Cow Project, Highlands and Islands Sheep Strategy

I can be followed on Twitter @SamBoonBreeding