Extent of livestock disease spread remains unknown as lambing season progresses

AN outbreak of a new animal disease which causes birth defects in livestock has worried East Anglian farmers.

The Schmallenberg virus first emerged in the Netherlands and Germany but the infection has now been identified on 74 farms in England, including several cases in Suffolk and some in Essex.

It was first seen in sheep but is now being found in cattle herds, which has caused alarm among the county’s farming community.

It is thought the virus is spread by midges biting pregnant female animals, and the infection is then passed to their unborn offspring.

The disease has caused widespread birth deformities and abortions and also caused symptoms in adult cattle including reduced milk yield and diarrhoea.

The National Farmers Union (NFU) has called the disease a “ticking time bomb” as the extent of it is not yet known, and the infection is only discovered when the sheep or cows give birth.

The alarm was first raised in Norfolk by a shepherd with an early lambing flock in the north of the county, who had about 20 premature lambs with deformities in a flock of 200 ewes over a period of 10 days.

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Roger Long, a member of the NFU’s Norfolk livestock board, said: “It’s a worry for the whole sector.

“It’s effecting the offspring but it’s effecting them in the womb and they’re either aborting or coming out in a very deformed state and will live for no more than ten minutes.

“This year’s breeding stock will not be there to be sold, it could be quite a big percentage. In some parts of Europe they’re talking about 20pc losses, which is very, very expensive.

“Things are difficult enough as it is.”

Norfolk, Suffolk, East Sussex and Kent are said to be the worst hit counties but the virus has been recorded all along the south coast to Cornwall.

Mr Long, a cattle farmer from Scarning near Dereham, said those with livestock would have to “ride out” the effects of the disease this year and warned there was nothing farmers could do to protect their stock.

“A lot of diseases you can put disinfectant tubs down but you cannot be bio-security against a midge,” he added.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has urged farmers to continue to report any suspicions they have about their livestock, but have said it is unlikely the virus would cause disease in humans.

A spokesman said: “As everyone connected with the livestock industry has been expecting, the number of cases of Schmallenberg has increased as lambing and calving begin to gather pace.

“Schmallenberg has been identified in the south, south west and east of England, and we suspect livestock got the virus from infected midges blown across the Channel from affected areas in Europe.

“As farmers, vets and governments continue to gather information about the progress and effects of this disease, it’s vital that farmers continue to report any suspicions they have as soon as possible.”