Following EU decision 2003/100/EC Member States have recently implemented sheep breeding programmes to reduce the prevalence of sheep with TSE susceptible prion genotypes. The present paper investigates the progress of the breeding programme in the Netherlands. The PrP genotype frequencies were monitored through time using two sets of random samples: one set covers the years 2005 to 2008 and is taken from national surveillance programme; the other is taken from 168 random sheep farms in 2007. The data reveal that although the level of compliance to the breeding programme has been high, the frequency of susceptible genotypes varies substantially between farms. The 168 sheep farms are a subset of 689 farms participating in a postal survey inquiring about management and breeding strategies. This survey aimed to identify how much these strategies varied between farms, in order to inform assessment of the expected future progress towards eradication of classical scrapie.
On the one hand, we found that compliance to the national breeding program has been high, and the frequency of resistant genotypes is expected to increase further in the next few years. On the other hand, we observed a large variation in prevalence of the scrapie resistant PrP genotype ARR between farms, implicating a large variation of genetic resistance between farms. Substantial between-flock differences in management and breeding strategies were found in the postal survey, suggesting considerable variation in risk of scrapie transmission between farms.
Our results show that although there has been a good progress in the breeding for scrapie resistance and the average farm-level scrapie susceptibility in the Netherlands has been significantly reduced, still a considerable proportion of farms contain high frequencies of susceptible genotypes in their sheep population. Since 2007 the breeding for genetic resistance is voluntarily again, and participation to selective breeding can decrease as a result of this. This, together with the patterns of direct and indirect contact between sheep farms, might present a challenge of the aim of scrapie eradication. Communication to sheep owners of the effect of the breeding programme thus far, and of the prospects for classical scrapie eradication in The Netherlands might be essential for obtaining useful levels of participation to the voluntary continuation of the breeding programme.