Farm Of The Week: Exclusive club keeping disease at bay

SOME livestock farmers earn stewardship points repairing old stone walls. Some take the easier option of fencing. Bob and Anne Payne do both.

They get on well with their neighbours and are slightly embarrassed to confess to fencing inside their boundary walls, making a double barrier.

But it is a requirement of the exclusive club they are in, as owners of a flock certified free of Maedi Visna – two Icelandic words summing up an incurable disease which causes breathing problems and progressive wasting.

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MV was identified in Iceland but already known in mainland Europe and probably got into the UK with imports in the 1970s.

For years now, any show or market for sheep has had separate lines for accredited MV-free entries and the rest. But the origins of the concern are almost forgotten, except by those who have invested in being declared clean.

MV moves around in vapour from infected lungs, so accredited sheep must be kept at least two metres from the non-accredited – and the non-accredited are everywhere.

The Paynes breed Texels, the burly Continental which has become the UK’s top ‘terminal sire’ – meaning the one which is mated with a tough little ewe to produce lambs which pop out easily but are ready for the butcher in a few months.

Pedigree breeders have to take MV seriously if they want to sell at their breed society sales, or export animals, semen or embryos.

But most commercial lamb producers do not bother. Their lambs are butchered young and even their breeding ewes and rams are likely to be candidates for culling anyway by the time MV might be an issue. If they ever get it, they don’t see it.

The only animals tested for MV, usually, are already in accredited flocks. ‘Breakdowns’, meaning infected animals slipping past the precautions, are extremely rare – Bob Payne touches his wooden table.

But is that because accredited flocks are islands of health in a sea of infection? Or is it because their farmers have been bamboozled into a nice little earner for the veterinary profession? Bob Payne shrugs: “Nobody knows.”

But this summer, all of a sudden, we might have a clue.

Somebody discovered there were 20,000 blood samples from a good range of sheep sitting around in government fridges, from a survey for some of the other illnesses to which sheep are vulnerable. The difficulty of collecting samples from live sheep is more than half the problem in surveying for disease. With a bit of extra effort, it was suggested, the survey could take on the question about MV prevalence. And as reported elsewhere in these pages, that is now happening.

If MV has been quietly spreading, it could be a costly discovery. The only way to eliminate it is to cull. On the other hand, if MV appears to be just a theoretical bogey, unlikely to do much damage where sheep are not commonly kept in sheds, it is unlikely to do Bob Payne much good.

“It would be a brave bloke who said accreditation didn’t matter anymore,” he says.

He and his wife are both 69. He got an agricultural diploma and travelled the world using it for a while. But they were both social workers in Sheffield when they married.

In 1982, when the youngest of their three sons was five, they went into a job-share so they could take on Carr Head Farm on Hunshelf Bank, near Stocksbridge, between Sheffield and Penistone. They have since moved into a barn conversion, making room for their eldest son, Joe, a feed dealer, to live in the farmhouse with his wife and two daughters.

It was and remains a small farm – 31 acres owned and 20 rented. They needed to specialise and Texels were a coming thing when they started. They also ran South Devons for beef for a while but two lots of livestock was a lot for part-time farmers. They concentrated on the Texels and got up to 80 breeding ewes, now down to 50. Three rams get a bit of AI assistance to help keep the lambing in two tidy blocks. They sell 20-30 shearling rams a year, plus the odd spare ewe.

The Paynes got into performance measurement early and have been very successful with it in a small way. They expect to have ram lambs high on the Texel Society’s most-promising list every year.

“You could end up with some plug-ugly sheep if you only looked at the figures,” Bob admits. “The animal still has to be well-made. But it made sense to me to take into account the sort of measurements the Pig Improvement Company was using when I was working for them in the 1960s.”

They have lately had a good run selling semen from a ram called Jack The Lad and last year one of Jack’s sons won the title Most Beautiful Sheep in Holland. Also last year they sold another whole ram to the Netherlands, where Texels come from.

They have had up to £1,250 for a ram. But there is an element of Crufts-style fashion involved at the top end of the market and they are content to do most of their business selling at prices in the high hundreds to commercial lamb producers.

The trick there is to get repeat business, says Bob, and he breeds to give value for his guineas.

He heard recently, from a fallen stock collector, that rams with failed livers account for something like one in seven dead sheep.

“I was amazed at the figure,” he says. “But I already knew blowing tups up with feed is bad for their fertility and their health. On a farm this size, we do need to feed some supplements, but we use standard formulations and not too much.”

They recently followed up on an old customer and discovered he had not been back because he was still working two rams he bought seven years ago.

Last year they presented the champion Texel at Honley Show and the best sheep in show at Penistone. Bob is chairman of the central region of the National Sheep Association and Anne is secretary.

See http://www.handbanktexels.co.uk/ or call 0114 2883241.