RUMA in conversation with Phil Stocker, Chief Executive, National Sheep Association

RUMA speaks with Phil Stocker, Chief Executive, National Sheep Association (NSA), on the journey of the sheep sector so far when it comes to antibiotic stewardship and the journey ahead.


RUMA: Why is AMR important to the Sheep sector?

Phil:  AMR is important for sheep farmers for two main reasons, both underpinned by the priority of protecting our reputation as a caring and responsible industry. We know that sheep farmers are relatively low users of antibiotics in their livestock, but we also know there are pockets of usage which we need to understand more about. We also know that progress is being made in other livestock sectors on antibiotic stewardship, and the farming industry as a whole has been making great progress in delivering sustainable reductions in recent years aligned to the RUMA Targets Task Force (TTF) targets.

What’s been particularly challenging for the sheep sector is the gathering of data. Thanks to the development of tools like Medicine Hub, we are working hard to gather total anonymised usage data so that the work we do can be built on solid evidence.

Farmers, and the whole of society, need antibiotics to keep working for humans and for our livestock, so across both human and veterinary medicine responsible use is important. We all want to protect against overuse to avoid resistance being developed.


RUMA: In your view what have been the main headlines for the sheep sector so far when it comes to its journey of antibiotic stewardship? 

Phil: One of the most notable headlines is the identification of the conditions in sheep where antibiotics are most used, and as a result, the identification of alternative strategies to reduce antibiotic use.

Through targeted campaigns we can then reduce use responsibly. For example, in the case of oral antibiotics in post-natal lambs where good practice in terms of hygiene and adequate colostrum, prevents watery mouth and therefore alleviates the need for antibiotics. Where antibiotics are used, if that data is captured via Medicine Hub, we have the building blocks to guide and support farmers and show our positive sector story.


RUMA: How important are the RUMA Targets Task Force (TTF) targets?

Phil: The NSA fully supports RUMA’s principles and its work in driving collaboration on the responsible use of all medicines and of course, it has had a specific focus on antibiotics.

The RUMA TTF targets are vitally important not only for the sheep sector, but UK farming as a whole, because they demonstrate industry collaboration and commitment to responsible use. It’s crucial that sheep farming demonstrates its work towards good antibiotic stewardship – our reputation is already one of high welfare farming and care for the environment and countryside – and our good reputation underpins our markets. British livestock farming has committed to working together to deliver responsible medicine use, and the sheep farming sector is committed to playing its part.


RUMA: Why is it so important for the sheep sector to have data? 

Phil: It’s simple – we need evidence to substantiate the low usage claims we make as a sector, and we need data to understand what we can do to minimise use without compromising good health and welfare.

We have long known that the sheep sector is a comparative low user of antibiotics – but we know there are pockets of use that we need to understand more about.  We need evidence and data to substantiate our claims of being a relatively low user and we also need data to show we are making further progress; progress can always be made and in most cases, alternative strategies to needing to use antibiotics improves productivity and saves money.


RUMA: What are the biggest challenges in the Sheep sector with regards to data collection and why?

Phil: Our biggest challenge arises from having a large volume of small and independent farmers. Unlike other sectors which may have a smaller number of producers and influential supply chains, engaging such a large number is a sizeable challenge.

That said, we also celebrate the diversity in our industry, which offers multiple benefits to society through high welfare, quality, safe food, wool – which is such a versatile natural product, and also environmental management of many of our most treasured landscapes.

The structure of the industry is why we need tools like Medicine Hub which can provide a simple and practical data entry solution without duplication.


RUMA: How has the NSA played a role in the development of Medicine Hub* (MH)?

Phil: The NSA facilitated a working group of members to test the system and feedback views and ideas at a number of points throughout its development. We are also actively playing our part in promoting Medicine Hub and explaining why it’s important for our industry.


RUMA: What has been the feedback from the members who have engaged with Medicine Hub (MH) and inputted data?

Phil:  User experience has shown that Medicine Hub is very easy to use.  Registration is simple and data entry is easy too.  However, any new tool takes time to embed and it’s important to support users in different ways. For example, we have pushed to enable the system to allow permission to be given to the prescribing vet to upload the data on behalf of the farmer.  We also hope that the veterinary health and welfare review as part of the Animal Health and Welfare Pathway, will encourage even more data entry to be completed.


RUMA: What will the impacts of Medicine Hub be?

Phil: Medicine Hub will help the sheep industry be recognised as taking the one health global challenges seriously and will demonstrate our commitment to playing our part using evidence to support reductions and responsible use.  It will not only aid our reputation here, but also in emerging markets that we may wish to strike trade deals with.


RUMA: Would you recommend farmers work with their vet to record AMU and why is this important? 

Phil: I would encourage more sheep farmers and vets to work together on health planning and management strategies, focusing on the principles of plan, prevent, protect. This shifts the emphasis to choosing to spend money with the vet for ‘good things’ rather than having to pay the vet when problems arise.  Collecting AMU data and discussing this between the vet and the farmer is a key component in understanding and protecting health and identifying any disease risks in a flock.


RUMA: What are the benefits of farmers and vets talking about antibiotic use on their farm?

Phil: It’s all part of building a deeper understanding of health, disease, and parasite issues in the flock.  Antibiotics are largely used when problems occur so understanding this is the start of the journey of management to avoid health and disease problems occurring in the first place.


RUMA: Do you have any context of what is happening in other sheep industries around the world? Are we leading the way?

Phil: The UK is a leading player in the global sheep industry, and we have many examples where parts of our industry are at the forefront of good health management.  But we need to encourage all practice to become good practice, and we need to be aware that there are progressive initiatives taking place in other sheep producing nations who compete with us in global markets – another reason why we need to be at the top of our game.

Across UK agriculture as a whole when it comes to antibiotic stewardship we are up there amongst the leaders in my opinion, and when you consider the size and scale of our livestock industry, it is fair to say we are leading the way.


RUMA: The emphasis is on a voluntary approach to collecting data, but could you see a scenario where data collection becomes a requirement for farm assurance or government support schemes?

Phil: I’d much rather see a voluntary approach be successful, but if it’s not then I can without doubt see a scenario where antimicrobial data provision will become a requirement of assurance schemes and Government initiatives in the future. Securing ongoing antibiotic efficacy is such an important part of the global One Health agenda that if we fail to pick up this challenge, I could also see it becoming a mandatory requirement.  Let’s not forget that these are prescription medicines that are intended for use under veterinary guidance. The Welsh Beef and Lamb Producers (WBLP) assurance scheme, has already introduced a standard requiring members to give permission to their vets to upload antibiotic use data into their system – resulting in significant amounts of data being submitted which then becomes meaningful. Assurance schemes are already under pressure from the supply chain to require the gathering of this data, and there will be strong encouragement via Defra’s new Animal Health and Welfare Pathway for antibiotic usage to be submitted to contribute to this important industry initiative.


*Medicine Hub has been developed and is managed by AHDB on behalf of the industry: Medicine Hub