Disease screening aims to improve health of wild sheep

By freelance writer, Tara Klager (https://www.producer.com/livestock/disease-screening-aims-to-improve-health-of-wild-sheep/)

Disease screening aims to improve health of wild sheep | MOVI Free

Provincial wildlife veterinarian Dr. Helen Schwantje, B.C. Sheep Separation Program co-ordinator Jeremy Ayotte and Ellie Hann test a flock for M. ovi at Riverside Farm near Briscoe, B.C. | Jesse Bone photo

Pilot project in British Columbia offers free M. ovi testing in domestic flocks as a way to reduce spread to wild animals

This spring, rather than landfilling or burning their waste wool, domestic sheep producers in the East Kootenays can have it turned into environmentally friendly fertilizer pellets while supporting wild sheep conservation.

In an initiative that partners hope will grow to include all wild sheep areas in the province, British Columbia shepherd Jennifer Bowes is spearheading a pilot project that will pay producers 50 cents per pound for their waste wool, which she plans to turn into fertilizer pellets for retail sale. Participating producers will be offered the chance to participate in workshops and have their flocks tested for Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, M. ovi, free of charge.

M. ovi is a strain of mycoplasma, a family of bacteria that are responsible for human “walking pneumonia” among other diseases. In domestic sheep, it’s thought to be common but scientists have only recently been able to study it.

“We needed lab equipment to evolve,” says Dr. Helen Schwantje, wildlife veterinarian emeritus for the province. “PCR tests made M. ovi testing possible.

“It’s not dissimilar to COVID,” she says. “It spreads through droplets. Nose-to-nose transmission is the most efficient.”

While some domestic sheep may be able to clear the bacteria, other animals will see a decline in productivity including a reduced growth rate and a poor fleece quality. Youngsters in the domestic flock can host and reinfect adults leading to an endless cycle of disease.

As annoying as it can be for domestic producers, the consequences in wild sheep herds is catastrophic.

“The weight of evidence is it starts with the domestics,” says Schwantje, “and it overflows into the wild herds. In never-before exposed animals, the mortality can range between 25 and 95 percent. In our experience, it’s between 65 and 85 percent in British Columbia.”

When she thinks back, Bowes is certain she saw M. ovi’s effects in the flock earlier, she just didn’t know what it was.

Their first year at their Briscoe farm saw some unexplained losses, which she now attributes to the pathogen.

With possible transmission to nearby vulnerable and iconic big horn sheep a possibility, Bowes took on a program of testing, quarantining and monitoring positive animals and culling those identified as chronic carriers.

“It was just the right thing to do,” she says. “Our farm will be better for it.” She also notes that results were quick to reveal themselves in the flock.

“Lamb quality and wool improved,” she says. “It was so noticeable…. Initially, we may have lost money but we’ve made up for it now.”

Jeremy Ayotte, program co-ordinator with the B.C. Sheep Separation Program, one of Bowes’ partners in the project, says the program is voluntary. “It’s education and outreach. There are lots of mitigations and farm practices that can help to limit risk.”

Bowes, an Edmonton native, says her history with wild sheep is a romantic one.

“I remember them, these amazing animals, from our drives to Jasper when I was a child. I never thought they wouldn’t be there.”

If M. ovi remains undetected in domestic flocks living in wild sheep territory, the threat to wild sheep is real and, in fact, it may already be too late.

“We’re working with Big Horn sheep populations in the Fraser Valley,” says Schwantje. “There are so few animals, they may just wink out. It may have happened already.”

In 2014, the Chasm herd of Big Horn sheep northwest of Kamloops, B.C., experienced a massive die-off and went from more than 100 animals to less than 30. Similar die-offs have been reported in the Okanagan.

Researchers, the provincial government and sheep and goat associations hope that educating farmers about the risks of M. ovi and wild sheep populations will inspire producers to get their flocks tested so a policy can be made part of a provincial toolkit to safeguard the wild sheep.

“It’s an education thing,” says Bowes of her pilot project. “When you see the losses, it’s heartbreaking. If we can educate, we can have happy, healthy wild sheep; happy, healthy domestic sheep and happy, healthy farmers.”

“We’ve dealt with COVID for two years,” she says. “We can deal with M. ovi.”