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Farms warned as virus kills lambs

A virus causing stillbirths and deformities in livestock has hit scores of British farms. Experts say cases of Schmallenberg virus, first identified in England last December, have spread to more than 70 farms from Kent to Cornwall and from the Isle of Wight to Gloucestershire.

The full effects of the virus are only now starting to appear as the spring lambing season begins and infected sheep give birth. Some infected lambs have been found dead at birth, while others have died soon afterwards.

It is feared the virus's spread could have serious consequences for meat and milk markets, with farms already warning that losing up to half their stock to stillbirths – a worst-case scenario – would put them out of business.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the virus had been identified in sheep on 69 farms and in cattle on five more. A Defra spokesman warned farmers to be vigilant.

The virus was discovered in Germany and is named after the city where it was first identified. Cases have since appeared in France, Belgium and the Netherlands; thousands of animals have been infected. The disease is believed to have spread to England via wind-born midges.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said it could not be ruled out that the virus could spread to humans.