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Identifying Environmental Risk Factors for Louping Ill Virus Seroprevalence in Sheep and the Potential to Inform Wildlife Management Policy

Lucy Gilbert, Franz Brülisauer, Kim Willoughby and Chris Cousens

Identifying the risk factors for disease is crucial for developing policy and strategies for controlling exposure to pathogens. However, this is often challenging, especially in complex disease systems, such as vector-borne diseases with multiple hosts and other environmental drivers. Here we combine seroprevalence data with GIS-based environmental variables to identify the environmental risk factors associated with an endemic tick-borne pathogen—louping ill virus—in sheep in Scotland. Higher seroprevalences were associated with (i) upland/moorland habitats, in accordance with what we predicted from the habitat preferences of alternative LIV transmission hosts (such as red grouse), (ii) areas of higher deer density, which supports predictions from previous theoretical models, since deer are the key Ixodes ricinus tick reproduction host in this system, and (iii) a warmer climate, concurring with our current knowledge of how temperature affects tick activity and development rates. The implications for policy include adopting increased disease management and awareness in high risk habitats and in the presence of alternative LIV hosts (e.g., grouse) and tick hosts (especially deer). These results can also inform deer management policy, especially where there may be conflict between contrasting upland management objectives, for example, revenue from deer hunting vs. sheep farmers.

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