Considerable effort has been put into detecting and identifying parasitic nematodes in live ruminants, but to date most studies are limited to a small group of nematodes and/or to experimentally infected sheep. In this study, a PCR-based assay using species-specific primer pairs, located in the second internal transcribed spacer ribosomal DNA, was developed to identify nine different species from six different families of parasitic nematodes in a wild, unmanaged and naturally infected population of sheep. Each primer pair was tested for its specificity and sensitivity and it exclusively amplified the species it was designed for and exhibited a high degree of sensitivity. The method was applied to eggs and Cultured larvae to identify the parasitic nematodes present in a pooled faecal sample from several host individuals with unknown parasite burden. To test detection reliability, a faecal sample from an individual with known parasite burden (through post-mortem analysis) was also examined. All species present could be correctly identified by PCR, but detecting very low levels and/or early stages of infection proved to be difficult. The method was also tested for its applicability to high through-put screening of faecal samples. (C) 2003 Australian Society for Parasitology Inc. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.