Years of dry weather in New South Wales may have helped eliminate footrot, a debilitating disease found in sheep and goats. Claire Fenwicke reports.

Since the establishment of the NSW Footrot Strategic Plan in 1988, footrot cases have steeply declined. In 2009, less than one per cent of flocks displayed symptoms of the disease. According to a report, titled Footrot in Sheep and Goats, by the NSW Department of Primary Industries, ongoing surveillance of flocks and effective response have maintained the low incidence.

Footrot is a contagious bacterial disease of the foot found in sheep and goats. According to the report, if untreated, footrot “is a “severe, debilitating disease with significant economic loss from reduced wool growth and quality, poor ewe fertility, poor growth rates, losses from blowfly strike, and reduced value of sale sheep.” Profitability is also reduced through cost of treatment of the disease.

Two of the three major environmental factors that must be present for footrot to establish and pass between sheep are: adequate moisture, and adequate pasture length or density to make feet susceptible to infection. Hot or dry weather conditions therefore impede its spread.

Geoffrey Green, senior biosecurity officer for the Northern Tablelands division of Local Land Services, became involved with footrot control in 1997 as a CSIRO ranger. Footrot cases in the region were unexpectedly high. Over eight years, Green visited 2000 properties, 400 of which needed to be quarantined.

Green attributes the successful control of footrot to the dry conditions of early 2000. “Drought is a great time to get rid of footrot. Not only to suppress the expression and spread, but it lets you do a program on the fixed dates regularly. In wet weather, you get into all sorts of trouble.”

In 2006, the middle of the last major drought period, NSW Department of Primary Industries noted that the number of footrot-quarantined flocks was down to 119 out of 23, 819 flocks state-wide. In contrast, over 6000 flocks were infected in the wetter 1990s.

Murray and Dimity Fenwicke are Armidale graziers who were supervised by Green. The footrot program failed in their first year, which was wet, but with structural changes in place, they were able to eradicate the disease after two years. “We had to build a roof extending from the shed over the race to keep the sheep and their feet as dry as possible, and this also allowed us to continue with the program on wet days,” Dimity said.

It wasn’t easy. “The yards got muddy, their [the sheep’s] feet got muddy, and so you couldn’t pick out which ones were diseased,” recalled Murray. “The roof allowed us to continue the program no matter what, but the dry weather meant it was easier to control.”

Another mitigating factor was a change in attitude across farming. Sheep prices were high, so farmers would not be financially devastated if they had to sell infected sheep; there was also a shift from sheep to cattle.

People also realised how easy it was to contract the disease. “[Now] there’s a concern about the disease, but no longer the looking down the nose and saying ‘well, you must be a poor manager’. That was the stigma at the time,” said Green.

Cases in the Northern Tablelands have stayed relatively low since the drought of early 2000. But Green warns that careful prevention measures are vital. “The big thing is the program must be tailored to the specific property.”

The NSW Footrot Strategic Plan has been recognised as “one of the most successful disease control programs undertaken by the sheep industry in Australia,” according to a 2011 NSW Department of Primary Industries release. Its success has enabled the Northern Tablelands to remain under protected status for footrot in 2014.

References:

Beating footrot in NSW cause for celebration, NSW Department of Primary Industries, published 11 November 2011

Drought helps sheep producers tackle footrot, NSW Department of Primary Industries, published 18 December 2006

Footrot in Sheep and Goats, by Samantha Allan, Senior Veterinary Officer, Animal Biosecurity, Tamworth, published February 2014

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