The environment department Defra has issued a serious warning to pregnant women to avoid sheep during lambing time because of the danger of disease which can cause them to miscarry their babies.
Such risks have been understood in farming circles for many generations but the department is concerned that, as part of country lore, they might be dismissed as old wives’ tales by newcomers to sheep farming - or even women who take their children on visits to modern “petting” farms.
One sheep disease which has long been associated with human miscarriage is scapie, which some believe may have been the root cause of mad cow disease (BSE). There is also a theory that ancient legends of village “Simple Simons” may have been caused by brain damage caused to human babies whilst still in the womb by sheep-carried disease.
To avoid the possible risk of infection, pregnant women are advised that they should:
- Not help to lamb or milk ewes.
- Avoid contact with aborted or new-born lambs or with the afterbirth, birthing fluids or materials (e.g. bedding) contaminated by such birth products.
- Avoid handling (including washing) clothing, boots or any materials that may have come into contact with ewes, lambs or afterbirth.
- Ensure partners attending lambing ewes take appropriate health and hygiene precautions, including the wearing of personal protective equipment and adequate washing to remove any potential contamination.
- Pregnant women should seek medical advice if they experience fever or influenza-like symptoms, or if concerned that they could have acquired infection from a farm environment.
- Farmers have a responsibility to minimise the risks to pregnant women, including members of their family, the public and professional staff visiting farms.