ARCHIVE: Veterinary surveillance: Sheep
This page gives an introduction to sheep farming in the UK and how we look out for diseases of sheep. It has links to other pages on the Defra website. You can find further information on other websites by following the link at the bottom of this page.
Sheep farming in the UK
Sheep in the UK are mainly farmed for meat (lamb and mutton). They also produce wool and some milk. Sheep are also used in the management of grassland.
The structure of the UK sheep industry is complex and is described as being stratified. It produces about 300,000 tonnes of meat which represents 85% of the sheep meat eaten in the UK and is the largest sheep industry in Europe. It also produces 1% of the world’s raw wool, approximately 50,000 tonnes per year.
There are many different breeds of sheep. They can live on mountains, hills and lowlands and different breeds are generally used for different purposes. The most numerous sheep breed is the Scottish Blackface. Most breeds have a breed society which represent the interest of their members. Most societies have their own websites. The work of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust helps to support those breeds in danger of disappearing.
How many sheep are there in the UK?
Altogether there are about 36 million sheep in the UK, half of which are adult breeding animals.
Everyone who keeps sheep must be either registered with Defra or the appropriate devolved administration. All sheep have to be identified by numbered tags fixed permanently to their ears. The European Commission has proposed that by 1 January 2008 all sheep should be electronically identified.
We also collect information about the numbers and types of sheep during a census completed by farmers in June every year.
We have information for sheep that is broken down by whether or not they are adults or under 1-year old. We also know if they are intended for breeding. As well as the total number in the UK, the information can be broken down by county for England. Records are available for 2005 and from earlier years.
We have used this information to map (PDF 548 KB) how may sheep there are in different areas.
Looking for sheep diseases
Many people are involved in looking for diseases.
The results for Great Britain are published each year in the Report of the Chief Veterinary Officer.
Other people and organisations look for sheep diseases that are of economic importance to the industry, for example Maedi-Visna.
Who does it ?
Some of the testing is carried out by Local Veterinary Inspectors and some by Veterinary Officers and Animal Health Officers from Animal Health.
Meat inspectors of the Meat Hygiene Service look for signs of disease during the post mortem inspection of animals slaughtered for meat.
Which are the most important diseases of sheep in the UK?
Different diseases are important to different groups of people. From the point of view of the Government, the most important infectious diseases of sheep present in the UK are probably scrapie, caseous lymphadenitis, sheep scab and certain infections that may also affect people . These include Salmonella and cryptosporidium as well as some causes of abortion such as toxoplasmosis, enzootic abortion of ewes and campylobacter.
From the point of view of the farmer, some of the most important conditions include lameness including gut worms and fascioliasis (liver fluke), sheep scab, clostridial diseases, orf, lice, lameness and the causes of abortion already mentioned. For the pedigree flocks Maedi-Visna and caseous lymphadenitis are important.
What other diseases do we look out for?
We also keep a look out for sheep diseases which do not usually occur in this country. The most important of these exotic diseases is foot and mouth disease. Other important ones are bluetongue, Brucella melitensis and Mycoplasma agalactiae. News from other countries about these diseases helps us plan how to keep them out.
- VLA Small Ruminants Disease Surveillance Reports
- Other websites - These sites may be useful if you are interested in further information about sheep in the UK. Please note that Defra does not necessarily endorse the content, information or opinions of these sites.
- Farming information on the Defra website.
- Sheep dip: Information on the use and disposal of sheep dip.
Page last modified:
18 July 2007
Page last reviewed: 18 July 2007