Lambing season left blighted as deadly Schmallenberg virus

Farmers fear livestock crisis after thousands of animals killed by Schmallenberg disease

Tens of thousands of lambs have been stillborn or deformed throughout Britain as a result of the deadly Schmallenberg virus, with the industry bracing itself for what could be a blighted lambing season.

In infected flocks the rate of lamb loss has been between 25 and 30 per cent on average, according to the National Farmers Union livestock chief, who has lost 40 per cent of the lambs from his early breeding flock to the emerging virus. Schmallenberg has been reported on more than 1,200 farms across the country, but there are fears the disease is being under-reported and that the Government is not taking the threat seriously enough.

Although there are hopes that many later-lambing ewes, which make up the majority of the national flock, have escaped infection, farmers warn that losses on a similar rate throughout the lambing season would plunge the sheep-farming industry into “crisis”.

“Farmers need a good lambing season to avert a crisis,” Robin Milton, the NFU’s Uplands chairman who keeps 700 ewes on Exmoor, Devon, said. “It’s a fragile state of affairs. If there was even a five per cent loss, in some flocks, that’s the profit for the year gone.”

Sheep farmers are already struggling with falling lamb prices and the after effects of last year’s poor weather. Farmgate prices for lambs have dropped by a quarter and the wholesale price is down 17 per cent, but the price for lamb on the shelf has dipped only two per cent, leaving farmers to pick up the deficit.

Schmallenberg first appeared in eastern England more than a year ago, but is now believed to have spread to every county in England and Wales. The virus, which originated in Germany and is thought to have spread in infected insects blown across the Channel, causes abortions and birth defects in livestock. Cattle farmers also fear the virus could affect this year’s calves.

Uncertainty over the damage Schmallenberg might cause has led to calls for the Government to accelerate development of a vaccine, which is not predicted to be released on to the market until next year. Defra is still treating Schmallenberg as a low-priority, non-notifiable disease, meaning that farmers do not have to report cases of it, which has led to fears the Government may be underestimating its true extent.

Charles Sercombe, the NFU’s livestock chairman, who keeps 2,000 ewes near Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire, has lost 40 per cent of his early breeding pedigree Charollais flock to Schmallenberg – a financial loss of £12,000 to £15,000. “This is a very new disease,” he said. “We’re all learning about it as we go along. The uncertainty is making farmers apprehensive as we look towards the March and April lambing season. We’re all keeping our fingers crossed that the impact will be lower than in the earlier flocks.”

The virus is spread by midges, mosquitoes and ticks and although an infection to a ewe or a ram does not necessarily mean offspring will die, early losses have raised concerns that the disease’s impact could be greater than first feared.

The Government anticipates that later lambing flocks will be less vulnerable because later-breeding animals may have had time to develop natural immunity to the virus. “It would be useful if the Government did everything they could to make the vaccine available,” Mr Sercombe said. “Confidence in sheep farming is at rock bottom. The safest option is to give us the vaccine to protect our flocks.”

A Defra spokesman said: “It’s extremely distressing for any farmer whose flocks have been affected by Schmallenberg – particularly those who have seen a greater impact on their sheep and cows.”

Schmallenberg: how the disease spreads

Schmallenberg virus is an emerging livestock virus that originated in Germany and has been detected in Belgium, the Netherlands and now the UK.

It is transmitted by vectors such as midges, mosquitoes and ticks. It is believed the disease arrived in the UK carried by midges blown across the Channel.

The virus can cause late abortion or birth defects in newborn sheep, cattle and goats as well as diseases such as milk drop, pyrexia and diarrhoea in adult cattle. It is not a notifiable disease, meaning that farmers do not have to report it, but they are advised to contact a vet if they encounter symptoms in their livestock.

There is a low likelihood of any risk to public health.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Savvy Media Ltd: Media Sales executive - Crawley

£25k + commission + benefits: Savvy Media Ltd: Find a job you love and never h...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Solicitor NQ+ Oxford

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CORPORATE - Corporate Solicitor NQ+ An excelle...

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

The young are the new poor

Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

Greens on the march

‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

Through the stories of his accusers
Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

The Meaning of Mongol

Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible