Why We Quarantine

On our homestead, we use quarantine as a regular part of our process for new flock additions. It is a lengthy process – four-to-six weeks at least – and it means a lot of extra work for this shepherd. There are extra pens to clean, extra feed and water to manage and all of it with a strong smell of bleach. So why do it?

Quarantine is a tool that most of us are super-familiar with now, thanks to COVID-19. We all know that quarantine is meant to keep sick individuals from mixing with healthy individuals and so limit the spread of infection. That’s the purpose of our quarantine too – we want to keep new potential flock members separate from our regular flock until we know, with as much certainty as possible, that the new animals are clean and healthy.

Our process is simple. We have a dedicated pen located away from our regular flock where contact isn’t possible. In this shelter we provide, food, water, mineral and salt in dedicated troughs and buckets that don’t leave the quarantine zone. We have dedicated boots that are bathed in bleach on the way into and out of the pen and dedicated jackets that don’t go into the regular sheep yard. When new animals arrive, we put them in our quarantine holding pen and they stay there while we observe them. We’re looking at body condition, fleece condition and gradually transitioning them to our feeding program. We vaccinate, trim feet, check for lice or keds, take fecal samples to test for parasites and treat them as necessary, shear them if the weather is appropriate and have our vet out to give them a herd health check.

And we will test them for Ovine Progressive Pneumonia (OPP) (also known as Maedi Visna) and Johnes Disease.

These two conditions are heartbreakers. They are both fatal, untreatable and relatively few symptoms are apparent in young animals. They are contagious – through nose-to-nose contact/milk in the case of OPP and contaminated feces and saliva for Johnes. It is essential that we know in advance – before new individuals join our flock – whether or not these diseases are present. A negative test means a sigh of relief. A positive test means one real. Bad. Day.

Recently, our quarantine protocols have been tested. We brought in two pretty Cotswold ewes and I was so excited about adding registered, purebred animals to our small flock. This is a big moment in any farmer’s world – all that promise and potential. We did all the usual things and about four weeks into our quarantine period, we got our results back. Of the two ewes, one tested positive for OPP, the other did not and both were negative for Johnes.

We had a tough decision to make.

It’s hard to find peers who will talk to you – as a new shepherd – about these things. There’s a lot of stigma around these diseases even though whether or not an animal contracts the illness can be completely out of the farmer’s hands. Often, the disease is present without any signs – only a blood test can determine whether or not it’s there, lurking in the biology of an outwardly healthy animal. Unfortunately, neither Johnes nor OPP can be cured, only eradicated – usually through aggressive and uncompromising culling.

I really liked Pauline. She was sweet and although she was skittish, she had a quality about her I enjoyed. I liked the way her ears stuck out, the bright look in her eye, the way she held her head to see around her forelock. I liked to see her peeping out of the quarantine shed under a curly mop. I thought she was nifty and that her fleece was incredible and her babies would be stunning.

And in one morning, all that potential was just gone.

It’s a hard day when the tests come back, some days. It’s a hard day but quarantining effectively means it’s just one hard day, one animal. Because we quarantine the way we do, we can look our visitors and customers in the eye and tell them that we have never had a positive test in our flock – our flock is safe and healthy.

I can’t say that a positive test in the flock will never happen – all things being equal, no one can say that. I can ensure that to the very best standards, of anyone anywhere, every risk we can manage, we do manage. Even when the choices are hard.

Especially when the choices are hard.

Both of these ewes were tested with the ELISA test. Until 2019, a second test, AGID, had been available. The AGID test was good but not nearly as accurate as the ELISA. It has since been discontinued by the manufacturer.