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‘Push back on endemic disease’ - role of new UK-wide livestock disease group explained

Following the creation of the Ruminant Health and Welfare Group, Hannah Park speaks to its newly appointed chairman Nigel Miller.

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Nigel Miller, newly appointed chairman of the Ruminant Health and Welfare Group.
Nigel Miller, newly appointed chairman of the Ruminant Health and Welfare Group.

A new UK-wide cattle and sheep industry group has been launched with the aim of speeding up progress against endemic diseases and reputational challenges via a more joined-up approach.

 

Nigel Miller, a qualified vet and former NFU Scotland president, has been appointed as the group’s first chairman for a two-year term.

 

He farms 602 hectares (1,500 acres) in partnership with two of his sons in the Scottish Borders. The upland hill farm supports 160 cows and some 1,000 breeding sheep, including hoggs.

 

Mr Miller is also a board member of the Moredun Research Institute.

 

Q: What is the Ruminant Health and Welfare Group (RHWG)?

A: The RHWG is an independent cattle and sheep industry group formed earlier this year, following an industry-wide consultation involving representative levy bodies and other stakeholders from across the livestock sector in England and across the UK - The focus is very much on injecting new energy to push back on endemic disease.

Q: What will the groups priorities and/or areas of focus be?

A: The group does inherit a level of activity from the former bodies and work already in play to combat some of the big animal health and welfare challenges, such as BVD, lameness and mastitis.

 

Sustainable Control of Parasites in Sheep and Control of Worms Sustainably have developed effective strategies to control both worms and fluke while also protecting the efficacy of a limited armoury of drugs.

 

There has been real progress on reducing our reliance on antibiotics and protecting antimicrobials which are crucial for human health.

 

There are solid wins to protect and build on, but longer term I am expecting we will delve deeper than the established headline issues and end up with a varied portfolio of priorities determined at a more regional level.

 

In my view, this will be determined by producers and farm vets, which, although challenging given the present Covid-19 situation, will be gathered via a consultation process aimed at groups of farmers or vets across different UK regions.

 

This will help us find out what they believe are their main challenges in their area or sector. I am hoping we can make real progress on this before the end of the year.

Q: Why do you think the RHWG is important?

A: The RHWG will work independently to bring the industry and governments together to work collaboratively to speed up the fight against endemic disease in ruminants.

 

To make progress when it comes to core national or more localised issues, it has to be relevant either in production or welfare terms to the people on the ground who are doing the job every day. Parachuting in so-called expert ideas is no way to buy in support.

 

As we approach what could be a tough time as far as domestic and international markets are concerned, the welfare standards we operate under and the perception of our industry will be one of our differentiating standards. We know producers rank this of high importance.

 

But also moving further up the agenda is climate change. Scientists see animal health as one of the ‘easy wins’, suggesting raising it to a certain level can reduce on-farm emissions by 10 per cent.

 

It is a credible target, but the standards or strategy required to achieve and deliver this in a way which could be objectively assessed are yet to be defined.

 

The group now has the challenge to translate that aspiration into a package of health measures which add value on-farm while also delivering that 10 per cent reduction in emissions.

Q: How will the RHWG work and are there other organisations involved?

A: The working model will evolve, but it is clear the RHWG will operate at two levels. In England, identifying priorities and acting as a catalyst for change.

 

Agreeing a strategic response to the challenges identified by our producers and a voice to champion the ruminant sectors health and welfare agenda.

 

That role in England will be supported by a wide ranging stakeholder or steering group. At UK level there is a recognition that approaches and priorities will vary across the union, however the ambition is to build working relationships which enable best practice to be shared and identify where a common approach adds value.

 

It is envisaged that meetings will rotate around the four nations and the RHWG will function through a core group drawn from the steering group. The membership of the core group is likely to be fluid, drawing on expertise to support progress on the proposed UK agenda.

 

Agriculture and the ruminant sector in particular face a period of change as the UK establishes a new place in the world trade network and the pressures of climate change targets start to build.

 

A period when public concern for both animal welfare and the environment will only grow. It has never been

more important for us to raise animal health and welfare standards and take control of that agenda. The RHWG aims to be at the centre of that agenda.

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