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Identifying lameness in sheep early could help reduce use of antibiotics. Photo: John Fowler on Unsplash

Play the Lameness Game to help reduce antibiotic use in sheep farming

A new citizen science study is trying to understand how easy it is to spot lameness in sheep by using a simulation game - in order to help reduce the use of antibiotics in sheep farming and fight the global problem of antimicrobial resistance.

Led by the University of Exeter, the study is a playful approach to a serious issue. Lameness in sheep is mostly caused by the bacterial infections foot-rot and scald, and thought to account for two thirds of antibiotic use in sheep farming according to the National Animal Disease Information Service. Farmers need to use antibiotics to effectively treat the main causes of lameness, but extensive use of antibiotics increases the risk of bacteria building resistance to antibiotics.

At the centre of the study is the Lameness Game, a virtual simulation in which players are challenged with spotting the early signs of lameness in sheep as fast as they can by manoeuvring their way around a virtual flock and observing the sheep. In real life, if lameness can be spotted early, it can be treated early - reducing the need for repeated antibiotic doses as the disease progresses and/or spreads to other sheep. Better understanding how people spot the early signs of lameness through this virtual experiment could therefore help identify strategies to improve early identification and reduce antibiotic use.

Project lead Dr Matt Lloyd Jones said: “By using this game to help identify the best strategies for identifying early-onset lameness in a flock of sheep, we hope to develop guidelines to prevent farmers from getting into a situation in which they have to use lots of antibiotics for treating lots of sheep with severe foot-rot.”

The project is funded by a small GW4 Crucible seed funding grant from the GW4 Alliance – a research consortium of four of the most research-intensive and innovative universities in the UK: the University of Bath, University of Bristol, University of Cardiff and University of Exeter. The team includes Dr Robert Hughes (Bristol), Dr Aimee Murray (Exeter), Dr Max Barnish (Exeter) and Dr Nervo Verdezoto Dias (Cardiff).

UK-based adults – both farmers and non-farmers – can now participate in the study by playing the game and filling in a short questionnaire at https://forms.office.com/r/nam4bQRhss. Participants also have the chance to win one of three £50 Chelford Farm Supplies gift cards by entering a participant lottery.

Holly Vickery, a smallholder who farms sheep and a PhD student in animal behaviour and welfare, said: “Ensuring the health and welfare of our sheep is fundamentally important, yet lameness is a significant problem for farmers and can be hard to tackle with responsible use of antibiotics. Our target is to reduce overall use of antibiotics, and it will be very valuable to the industry to find alternative methods to prevent and treat lameness in our sheep.”

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is predicted to be the leading cause of death globally by 2050 resulting in 10 million deaths per year, with approximately 50 per cent of the world’s antibiotic use being attributed to agriculture. Identifying and implementing mitigation strategies to limit the emergence and spread of antibiotic resistance is therefore needed to help reduce both morbidity and mortality in animals and humans in the future. AMR arises from a complex cycle of antimicrobial use and spread of resistance, which the University of Exeter’s team tackles with a One Health research approach.

Professor William Gaze, a leading expert of the University of Exeter’s College of Medicine and Health and its European Centre for the Environment and Human Health, said: “We have to take a broader view to see how all the different elements contributing to AMR relate to each other, including in natural and farmed environments. AMR is an issue on a global scale, and we need innovative solutions to reduce antimicrobial use in livestock as well as in treatment of infections in humans.” 

For more information on the research into AMR at the University of Exeter visit https://www.exeter.ac.uk/research/amr/environment/.

The Lameness Game study runs until 30/06/2021 – click here to participate and be within a chance of winning one of three £50 Chelford Farm Supplies vouchers.

 

Date: 8 June 2021

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