Scientists investigate new technologies to tackle liver fluke

The highly pathogenic parasite is estimated to infect 85% of sheep flocks and 76% of dairy herds in the UK
The highly pathogenic parasite is estimated to infect 85% of sheep flocks and 76% of dairy herds in the UK

Scientists are investigating new technologies, including environmental DNA analysis and the use of wearable behaviour sensors, to tackle liver fluke.

The new three-year study at Aberystwyth University aims to develop novel interventions to aid sustainable control of liver fluke in sheep.

These include the use of environmental DNA and protein testing to identify liver fluke infection areas on farms and by developing tools to correctly determine which animals require treatment and when.

The highly pathogenic parasite is estimated to infect 85% of sheep flocks and 76% of dairy herds in the UK.

Infections are believed to cost the sector up to £300 million a year due to its effect in decreasing growth rates, fertility and milk production.

The farming industry regards it as among the top five endemic diseases impacting sheep and cattle production and their welfare.

Control of liver fluke is currently mainly dependent on the use of drug treatments, but excessive use of these over recent decades has led to the parasite developing resistance.

Dr Rhys Aled Jones from the university, who leads the project, said livestock producers faced 'an unprecedent threat' from liver fluke over the coming decades.

"Climate change, drug resistance and land management policy changes will all contribute to an increasing liver fluke threat," he explained.

“With liver fluke populations rapidly becoming resistant to certain drug treatments, alternative control strategies which focus on infection avoidance through grazing and land management must be utilised on farms.

"However, for these measures to be effective, it is imperative that we can accurately identify liver fluke infection risk areas within farms and fields."

The project will use environmental DNA analysis techniques to identify mud snail habitats on farms and evaluate the environmental features of these risk areas to enhance understanding of factors that influence mud snail presence and ecology.

Researchers will also develop a novel environmental protein analysis technique that will enhance environmental testing capabilities and offer insight into infection risk timeframes.

Drug treatments, however, will remain a vital component of liver fluke control strategies, Dr Jones said.

The project will collaborate with groups such as the Farmers Union of Wales (FUW), Menter a Busnes, the Welsh Veterinary Science Centre and Ridgeway Research.

Dr Hazel Wright, deputy head of policy at FUW said the effects of liver fluke infection on the growth and productivity of sheep flocks in Wales were 'significant'.

"As an industry we recognise that factors such as climate change and its resultant effects on weather patterns can have a tremendous impact on the transmission of parasitic infections.

"Given the propensity of liver fluke to thrive in the warmer and wetter conditions now being experienced by our members, this project is of vital importance in helping future-proof a sustainable and thriving sheep sector in Wales."