RUMA ‘in conversation’ with Fiona Lovatt, Chair of the Sheep Antibiotic Guardian Group (SAGG) – the antibiotic stewardship journey of the sheep sector

In the first part of ‘RUMA’s Sector in Focus campaign – Sheep’, we hear from Fiona Lovatt, Chair of SAGG who, in conversation with RUMA’s Secretary General, Chris Lloyd, sets the scene on the journey of the sheep sector so far when it comes to antibiotic stewardship.


Chris Lloyd (CL): “What are your main headlines regarding the journey of the sheep sector so far when it comes to antibiotic stewardship?”

Fiona Lovatt (FL): “There has been positive and steady progress in recent years which has been driven by motivating and encouraging teamwork between vets and shepherds at farm and flock level, alongside involving individuals throughout the lamb supply chain. The sheep sector was historically viewed as the stragglers and difficult to reach, which is unfair as there is some really important context to consider; specifically taking into account the size and scale of the sector. It is a large and extensive industry in comparison to other livestock sectors and whilst farmers record their medicine use, it often sits in different formats and programmes. While we believe there is a good story of low use, bringing all this data together in one seamless action isn’t easy, and certainly isn’t a quick job given the scale of the sector.

“What we can judge from the data that exists is that the sheep sector is a relatively low user of antibiotics, but we need evidence to create a solid national picture to support and reinforce that point. This is where initiatives like Medicine Hub come into play as this is a tool that will help us properly demonstrate the evidence of that low usage.

“It’s important to remember that since the inception of antibiotics back in 1928, they have been a gamechanger in the protection of both human and animal health. Today, thanks to the fullness of time, we have the benefit of now knowing the positive impact of antibiotics alongside vital insight on what responsible use needs to look like. Just as in human medicine, there have been huge efforts to change perceptions of how and when prescribing antibiotics is appropriate; the same applies in livestock which involves a behavioural change journey, led by evidence.

“Whilst confidence of low antibiotic usage is strong across the sector, it’s about more than evidencing low use; it’s about demonstrating how antibiotics are used and when, so that we can identify where other opportunities may exist to protect the impact of these medicines. Like any sector there are challenges that exist, but I firmly believe that despite those, the sheep sector can continue to make progress. Through the many industry initiatives that have been developed, there is a solid roadmap in place to provide that all important evidence that the sheep sector needs to demonstrate its responsible use credentials.”


CL: “As a key member of the RUMA Targets Task Force (TTF), can you share your views on this group and its role and how it has helped the sheep sector?”

FL: “There have been many benefits to having this group in place. It is a unique forum which offers insight into the activity and commitment in all the other sectors. It’s important to have all sectors involved and this provides the opportunity to check, challenge, learn from and motivate each other. It has enabled us all to feel part of a much bigger journey with solid focus and scrutiny.

“I remember well that at the first TTF mtg back in 2016, someone stated getting sheep sector data would never happen due to the size, scale and complexity of the sector. Granted, other sectors already had systems and structures which meant data collection was easier, and that made them the natural first areas of focus for data mining and collation but, never one to shy away from a challenge the sheep sector didn’t stay still, and the Sheep Antibiotic Guardian Group (SAGG) was created in 2017. Within a couple of years, SAGG was collaborating with other sector stakeholders to drive forward projects like Medicine Hub (MH) and ensure that the sheep sector was built into its remit, as well as many other industry initiatives which I’m sure we’ll focus on later in our discussion.

“Our aim on the TTF has very much been to take the industry with us and to drive a sustainable long- term solution rather than quick fixes – and this takes time. For the sheep sector it has taken a bigger investment of time due to the complexities I mentioned earlier – the size and scale of the sector is one challenge, coupled with plenty of on farm records but, not data that can be easily configured into one clear view due to the many and varying systems and programmes historically used to record data.”


CL: “Tell us about the inception of the Sheep Antibiotic Guardian Group (SAGG).”

FL: “Well it came about at the point that the first RUMA TTF report was about to be published (2017) when Charles Sercombe, the sheep producer representative, and myself the sheep vet representative, were asked to join the group on behalf of the sheep sector.  Charles and I were both bought into the concept of what RUMA was trying to do in terms of bringing all the sectors to the table to raise awareness of the AMR challenge and get commitments from all these sectors to help positively towards tackling it.

“Outside the RUMA TTF, we realised that we couldn’t make decisions on behalf of the whole industry if we didn’t have full support and buy in from everyone within the sector. Charles and I wanted to bring together the key players in the wider sheep industry including veterinary support, in order to help us input to those early TTF discussions, such as identifying any antibiotic hot spots, and shaping the eventual targets which were developed. That’s how SAGG was formed. We called upon contacts from the existing Sheep Health and Welfare group to ensure we had the right interest groups involved such as the NSA, SVS, NFU, AHDB etc.”


CL: “Why is Medicine Hub Medicine Hub (MH) so important?”

FL: “It is our first big chance to collate data, build that all important national picture and to provide the evidence to underpin our claims of being a low-using, responsible use industry. It’s what the sector has needed, and the key now is for sheep farmers to work closely with their vets to populate it and help provide the evidence. This will help the sector no end; with evidence we can then challenge confidently, hold our heads high, and reassure all our stakeholders right across the farm to fork chain.”


CL: “In your opinion what will the impacts of MH be and why should the industry care?”

FL: “At a national level it will motivate and encourage everyone both within and outside the industry as it will demonstrate that the sheep sector is taking the threat of AMR seriously – that’s already happening which is great to see.  It will help enhance our reputation as an industry, which is important with consumers, but also on the wider world stage as the UK looks to open export markets and develop trade deals which will impact on the sheep industry. But Medicine Hub can also have a positive benefit at farm level, providing useful insight into medicine use for an enterprise to a farmer and their vet, to protect welfare, the ability to benchmark against other farms, and to use this as any other business tool to drive efficient and effective performance.


CL: “What role do farm assurance schemes play in supporting the responsible use of medicines such as antibiotics?”

FL: “By their very nature, assurance schemes set out and verify compliance against defined standards of food safety and animal health and welfare, which is always a positive and there are many schemes such as Red Tractor (RT), Welsh Beef and Lamb Production (WBLP) and Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) to name but a few. Their standards play an important role in supporting responsible use of medicines on farms participating in the schemes.

“For example, the Red Tractor standards were reviewed in 2021 and a notable addition was a new requirement that at least one person on the farm must undertake an approved course in responsible use of medicines. The standards also now require farms to produce an annual collation of total antibiotics used on the farm, which is aimed at paving the way towards the submission of data into the industry’s Medicine Hub and facilitating a farmer-vet discussion about antibiotic use on the farm. Red Tractor requires all its sheep farms to have a written Health Plan in place which is reviewed annually by the vet alongside the vet conducting an annual health and performance review. This is aimed at ensuring that flock health is being managed proactively and any diseases are being managed in the most effective way, with any necessary treatments being prescribed with antimicrobial stewardship in mind.”


CL: “Talk me through some of the industry initiatives that have been developed, why, and what have the impacts been?”

FL: “There are quite a few:

  • Colostrum is Gold is an award-winning industry campaign. It highlights the key role colostrum plays in farm animal performance through the improved health of young stock providing the platform for reducing antibiotic use. This long-running, collaborative industry campaign aims to raise awareness and improve youngstock health through gold standard colostrum management. First hosted by RUMA and now led by AHDB, it is an industry-wide annual campaign. Levy boards, levy payers, industry stakeholders and any other industry parties can communicate the benefits of colostrum and its role in improving welfare, reducing disease and reducing antibiotics in cattle (dairy and beef), sheep and pigs. Way before the campaign as we know it today, we were already using the hashtag #Colostrumisliquidgold for our sheep farmer and Flock Health Club lambing talks, so initially we were a bit gutted that we had to change all our slides; I’m joking of course – because it was well worth it and clearly, we were onto something good back then. There is ongoing awareness of the Colostrum is Gold campaign and message around ‘Quality, Quantity & Quickly’.  As a recent example of some of the impacts of this campaign from last year, we posted 147 Brix refractometers to Welsh sheep farmers and received data back on the quality of 1295 ewe colostrum – written up in a peer reviewed journal Colostrum Is Gold: feeding colostrum to calves, lambs and piglets | AHDB

–      Vaccines Work was initially launched by RUMA in 2018 and is now delivered by NOAH. It highlights the role vaccines can play in helping to protect health and welfare in all farm animal sectors and in supporting reductions, replacements or refinements in antibiotic use. The overall objectives are to raise awareness of how and why vaccines work and the range of diseases they protect against; to review and improve how vaccines are stored and administered; to encourage use of existing vaccines. The campaign has been well received since its launch with increasing year on year levels of activity and engagement especially across social media channels #VaccinesWork – NOAH (National Office of Animal Health)

–              Plan, Prevent, Protect – we have used this holistic messaging for all the infographics we have produced for the sheep industry since 2017. Plan ahead, prevent unnecessary disease (e.g.  though hygiene, shelter, ventilation etc), protect the flock (e.g., colostrum for neonates or vaccination). For Farm Vet Champions we have used this mantra throughout all the species-specific material – pigs, poultry, cattle, goats & sheep

–              Farm Vet Champions is a major collaborative project that is spearheaded by RCVS Knowledge and funded by the VMD, which aims to unite and empower UK farm animal veterinary practitioners to establish good antimicrobial stewardship in practices and on farms. To date and as this article is published, the total number of registered users stands at over 1,500 which is incredible  – users have access to free online training and the capability to set SMART goals and track progress Farm Vet Champions – RCVS Knowledge.


CL: “What next? What does or could the future look like?”

FL: “There is a big collaborative industry focus and push now to drive farmers to work with their   vets to input data into Medicine Hub. This is the sector’s opportunity to properly evidence its low usage claims and I urge all sheep farmers to speak to their vet to make use of this important industry tool.

“The future I think is incredibly positive. Medicine Hub combined with the many industry initiatives means the tools are now available for the sheep sector to take advantage of to prove our antibiotic stewardship commitment and credentials. To me it is a no brainer. The sheep sector still has work to do, but by gathering robust evidence we can ensure the direction of travel remains positive and our reputation is preserved.”


CL: “Is zero use ever a possibility either in the sheep sector or industry-wide?

FL: “In the UK, zero use would not be compatible with acceptable animal welfare standards and for this reason alone I do not think it would be responsible. Even with the UK’s high health and welfare standards, disease can occur, and it is vital that vets have access to antibiotics if and when needed to protect the wellbeing of animals when that is the right treatment to use.”