A survey of 220 sheep farmers from across the UK and Republic of Ireland (ROI) has highlighted the need for better awareness of sustainable liver fluke management and for information to be communicated via clear, straightforward messages.

Survey showed that greater awareness of sustainable liver fluke management was needed. Image: Elanco.

Liver fluke, Fasciola hepatica, is a highly pathogenic flatworm parasite of ruminants. It causes severe liver damage, especially in sheep, and can result in sudden death of previously healthy animals.

Elanco Animal Health initiated the research in conjunction with the Moredun Research Institute; Fiona Lovatt, sheep veterinary consultant at Flock Health; and George Milne, National Sheep Association (NSA) development officer and sheep farmer.

“The objective of the survey was to discover the extent and impact of liver fluke on farm and identify the reality of how farmers, alongside vets and suitably qualified persons (SQPs), are managing this parasite,” said Elanco’s Eugene Smyth.

“We are aiming to raise awareness of the issues and increase knowledge around liver fluke, and start to change behaviour to ensure farms are controlling the right stage of fluke, at the right time, with the right product.”

Chaired by John FitzGerald, secretary general at the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance, a panel of industry experts have come together to drive the campaign forward, discussing the findings in relation to practices and challenges for the industry to address going forward.

“The respondents were a good representative sample of sheep farms in the UK and ROI,” said Matt Colston, vet at Elanco.

“Looking at the results, there is clearly confusion about the best course of action and a large requirement for support from SQPs, vets and the wider industry to help develop knowledge among farmers.”

Liver fluke burden 

Chronic liver fluke infections cause significant production losses, leading to economic losses estimated at £262.4m* in the UK alone, according to statistics from Defra (2013 32.8m UK flock size and cost per head figures from SCOPS).

“The disease appears to be on the increase in the UK and spreading into previously fluke-free areas,” said Philip Skuce, senior scientist at the Moredun Research Institute.

“This is probably as a result of recent climatic changes, with milder winters and wetter summers favouring the parasite and its mud snail intermediate host,” he said.

A total of 56% of respondents said they had experienced liver fluke in the past five years, which surprised the panel of experts. Dr Lovatt said:

“This is a hard number to believe, especially given 2012 to 2013 was a particularly wet summer following a mild winter.

“Liver fluke burden in this year was described as an animal health and welfare crisis. If this survey had been completed off the back of that period, while it was at the forefront of people’s minds, I would have expected a much higher response.”

When questioned about whether their farm had experienced fallen stock from liver fluke, 40% confirmed they had.

NSA development officer George Milne said: “Many farmers may not investigate deaths. Given this, and that 10% were unsure whether liver fluke was the cause of the death, I would expect, in reality, this figure to be higher.” Impact Mr Milne continued:

“Farmers don’t appear to be grasping the scale of impact liver fluke can cause on farm. “34% (of respondents) said in a typical year it would have no impact, just 9% expected it to result in death, very few identified signs such as bottle jaw and only 1per cent felt it would have a financial impact on their flock. From my experience, this is definitely not the case,” he said.

Going forward

The challenge for the industry, Elanco says, is to make liver fluke understandable.

In a press release, Elanco said experts can be guilty of assuming knowledge when farmers have many other things to think about. So there is a requirement to deliver practical messaging to farmers at the right time of year.

Knowledge of the liver fluke cycle is limited. If farms are expected to get treatment decisions right and be able to adapt in bad fluke years, greater understanding is essential for future sustainability.

It is also essential to focus on ensuring SQPs and vets are fully up to date with testing options and the latest advice.

The panel agreed farmers need to focus on good pasture management combined with using the right product, at the right time, for the right stage of liver fluke and in the right animals. The best way to do that, they said, was by using the flock health plan and advisors, and incorporating testing and strategic dosing.

For more information, visit www.elancoanimalhealth.co.uk

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