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Characterisation of white line degeneration in sheep and evidence for genetic influences on its occurrence


Shelly hoof in sheep occurs when the hoof wall becomes detached from the laminar corium; it often then becomes impacted with debris leading to infection, pain and lameness. The problem of shelly hoof is under-reported and is often confused with classical footrot. A study was conducted using data on 9,169 Blackface and Texel sheep from 22 farms in the UK. The aim of the study was to estimate the prevalence of shelly hoof in these breeds, to quantify the genetic basis to shelly hoof, and to describe a pilot trail to characterise the physical properties of horn using Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM). The results showed that shelly hoof has a high prevalence (47% for Blackface and 24% for Texel ewes) and is under moderate genetic control (h2 = 0.3). The TEM images showed fragmented dorsal wall horn, microscopic crevices leading deeper into the hoof accompanied by bacteria and other micro-organisms. The invasion of bacteria was facilitated by separation of the cells in a characteristic ‘un-zipping’ phenomenon, poor attachment of the keratin to the cell membranes, poor cell membrane quality with a ‘lace-chain’ effect and incomplete keratinisation of the cells.

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Thanks to Sue Kempson of the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Science, Edinburgh University for her time and help for analysing the TEM images. Invaluable technical assistance was given by SAC staff at Bush and SAC’s Hill and Mountain Research Centre for data collection and to the farmers who put up with us repeatedly visiting their farms and interrupting their routines. This study was funded by Defra, the Scottish Government, English Beef and Lamb Executive, (Eblex), Quality Meat Scotland (QMS), and Hybu Cig Cymru (HCC) through the Sustainable Livestock Production LINK programme.

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Correspondence to Joanne Conington.

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Conington, J., Nicoll, L., Mitchell, S. et al. Characterisation of white line degeneration in sheep and evidence for genetic influences on its occurrence. Vet Res Commun 34, 481–489 (2010).

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  • Lameness
  • White line degeneration
  • Shelly hoof
  • Footrot
  • Genetic resistance
  • Sheep
  • Welfare
  • Heritability