The danger that the midge-born disease bluetongue will take hold in Britain appeared to increase last night after vets confirmed that a third animal had been diagnosed with the disease.
The latest case is at a farm near Lowestoft in East Anglia, about 50 miles from the first two cases on a rare-breeds farm in Suffolk.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was refusing to confirm last night that there were infected midges in the area, which would make it officially an "outbreak". But it is unlikely that the animals were infected by a single group of midges blown in from the Continent where the disease is now established.
Farmers have said they would view with "horror" the arrival of bluetongue in Britain while they are struggling to cope with an existing outbreak of foot-and-mouth in Surrey.
But the spread of the disease, which is usually fatal in sheep, across the county border to Norfolk will alarm ministers and farmers, who are already facing hardship because of the restrictions on animal movements for foot-and-mouth.
Government vets are catching midges in the area to test them for bluetongue. In a statement, Defra said: "At this stage, there is not sufficient evidence to confirm an active outbreak of bluetongue by the internationally recognised definition. It cannot yet be demonstrated that the disease is circulating or alternatively is the result of a single incursion of infected midges from abroad. Epidemiological investigations are underway to establish whether bluetongue is circulating in the UK."
The spread of bluetongue could dash hopes of a return to normal for farmers just as a lifeline has been thrown to them by Debby Reynolds, the Government's chief vet, over foot-and-mouth. Ms Reynolds announced on Monday that a ban on animal movements imposed because of foot-and-mouth was being eased to allow farm-to-farm travel in response to warnings of hardship of farmers and their livestock. Most farms outside the Home Counties were allowed yesterday to carry out such transport of animals for the first time in weeks. Ms Reynolds was also optimistic about lifting the ban on animal markets, after warnings that farmers were facing ruin.
Hours before the third bluetongue case was confirmed, her hopes were raised yesterday when tests on a suspected case of foot-and-mouth in Hampshire proved negative. The findings gave the chief vet confidence that the foot-and-mouth outbreak has been restricted to Surrey and the farms near the two laboratories in Pirbright from which the disease is believed to have escaped.
Ms Reynolds decided last night that the ban on animal movements in Norfolk and Suffolk should stay in force.
Bluetongue has spread rapidly through Europe from Africa but British vets were hoping the Channel would form a natural barrier. Their optimism was crushed when the first case was reported at the weekend. The disease is more lethal than foot-and-mouth, but it is not contagious.Reuse content