Bluetongue farm virus warning for sheep and cattle as midges blown into UK

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Emerging Bluetongue Virus Threatens UK Livestock Farmers

Experts have issued a warning about a new strain of an animal disease that could have a devastating impact on livestock farmers across England. The government has stated that there is a “very high probability” of the bluetongue virus being more widely spread by infected midges blown over from northern Europe.

To date, there have been 126 reported cases of the virus on cattle and sheep farms in England. While the virus does not affect humans or food safety, it poses a significant threat to the livelihoods of livestock farmers. In response, farmers are calling for a vaccine to be developed quickly to combat this new strain.

Farmer Roger Dunn had an outbreak on his farm at the end of 2023

Just last week, a vaccine was granted emergency approval in the Netherlands, where over 6,000 cases of the new strain, known as BTV-3, have been reported. A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has confirmed that the government is “actively engaging” with vaccine manufacturers to develop a BTV-3 vaccine for use in the UK.

The bluetongue virus can be particularly devastating for sheep, with the potential to see around 30% of a herd lost. While the mortality rate is lower in cattle, the disease still poses a significant threat. The virus causes a range of symptoms, including tongue and mucous membrane lesions, problems with swallowing, lameness, and stiffness, which can affect animal welfare and lead to a reduction in milk yields.

Kent farmer Roger Dunn, who operates a farm with 400 cattle and 1,200 sheep, experienced an outbreak of bluetongue shortly before Christmas, despite a control zone with movement restrictions already being in place. While the virus spread was contained on the farm by culling six cattle, for which Dunn was compensated, he knows the impact could have been much worse.

“When you could be losing 30 to 40% of your business, it is a big worry,” Dunn told the BBCThese are all pedigree Sussex cattle, so that is years and years of breeding. You could lose a lot of bloodlines through it. You could lose your whole herd through it if it becomes a serious outbreak, so it can be quite devastating. And, with the whole problem of movement and everything else, it just becomes a nightmare.”

Dunn also noted that, because his farm is located in a known bluetongue area, some buyers are “very hesitant” to purchase stock from him.

Cattle farmer David Barton, who is the chair of the National Farmers Union’s (NFU) livestock board, expressed concerns about the vaccine approved in the Netherlands, stating that there are still questions to be answered, particularly regarding the cost, rollout, and government support for its deployment.

Experts at the Pirbright Institute virus research center are now studying how the culicoides midges are spreading the disease. Scientists at the institute are breeding colonies of midges to understand which types carry the virus and which do not. Additionally, midge traps placed at 18 farm sites across the country are providing tens of thousands of the biting insects for study, serving as an early alert system for the presence of midges that could transmit the virus.

Dr Marion England is studying tens of thousands of midges and how they carry bluetongue

Dr. Marion England, who is overseeing the national surveillance of culicoides midges, explained that the temperature at which the midges become active is lower than the temperature required for virus transmission, meaning that knowing the midges are active provides an early indication of potential bluetongue transmission.

However, Dr. England warned that with midges “everywhere,” controlling the spread of the virus will be a significant challenge. “It only takes one midge bite to transmit the virus, so one infected midge can bite an animal once, and that animal will have a fully developed infection,” she said.

Dr. Carrie Batten, the head of the national reference laboratory for bluetongue, urged farmers to be vigilant and look for any clinical signs in their livestock, as this will help the institute identify outbreaks as early as possible and take the necessary measures.

The government, through Defra, has stated that it is actively monitoring the situation and reviewing its current bluetongue virus control strategy to address this emerging threat to the UK’s livestock industry.

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