A new livestock disease which causes birth deformities in sheep, cattle and goats has been identified in Britain for the first time.
Schmallenberg virus (SBV), seen since last August in livestock on farms in Germany and the Netherlands, has been found in four sheep farms in Norfolk, Suffolk and East Sussex, the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) said yesterday.
It is believed the disease was carried across the Channel by infected midges during the late summer and autumn, and turned up in the area of South-east England which had been thought to be at risk from wind-blown infection. About 200 farms on the Continent were affected in the autumn, 80 in Germany and more than 120 in the Netherlands.
The disease has been identified only now because there were no signs of it in the adult animals, but has since become apparent in newborn lambs on the four farms concerned. SBV has been found to be associated with miscarriages, stillbirths and congenital abnormalities, mainly in sheep but also in cattle and goats.
According to the AHVLA, there are still some uncertainties, but the risk to human health from SBV "is likely to be very low", though farmers and veterinary surgeons are advised to take sensible hygiene precautions when working with livestock.
It is not a notifiable disease, which means there are no major government measures such as movement restrictions swinging into action, and farmers are not legally obliged to report it, though they are being asked to do so.
"I would urge farmers to remain extra-vigilant for signs of this disease and take all sensible precautions to prevent infection," said the National Farmers' Union's (NFU) chief livestock adviser, Peter Garbutt.
"It will also help if any unusual symptoms, or abortions, are reported to the local vet or animal health office. If farmers are considering importing ruminants from the affected parts of Continental Europe, the NFU would strongly recommend that they discuss their plans with their vet first."