Somerset farmers discuss their fight against bluetonge disease, a threat to their livestock

PUBLISHED: 20:48 20 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:44 20 February 2013

Somerset's farming must be protected

Somerset's farming must be protected

Somerset farmers are stepping up the fight against a potentially devastating threat to their livestock

Somerset farmers discuss their fight against bluetonge disease, a threat to their livestock

Farmers in Somerset are once again being urged to vaccinate their animals against the threat of bluetongue. This insect-borne viral disease, which affects all ruminants such as cattle, goats, deer, alpacas and in particular sheep, is circulating widely in mainland Europe.

As Somerset Life went to press the NFU feared there was a real danger it could re-emerge in the UK in 2009.

The warnings come after 149 premises were confirmed to be affected by the bluetongue variant 8 strain (BTV-8) in England and Wales up to January 2009. These included the discovery of BTV-8 on a farm in Yeovil back in September following tests by Defra. The animals had been imported from the French BTV-8 zone (the region where this variant of the disease is circulating widely). Since then BTV-1 has also been detected in imported animals at a UK farm.

Somerset National Farmers' Union chairman John Hebditch says it is critical that farmers vaccinate their animals before turning them out after the winter. Infected midges will start flying around once the weather warms up.

"Vaccination is not compulsory but it is up to farmers to look after their own animals and lessen the likelihood of anyone else catching it as well.

"We were very lucky in Somerset that we got the vaccination relatively early on last year so people could vaccinate in sensible time. I hope that people take that opportunity again before the animals go out to grass."

John, a Somerset arable, beef and sheep farmer, says there were some who chose not to vaccinate last year.

"The reason some people gave was that they had already moved their animals onto the moor - that's Exmoor or the Levels - and the expense and effort of bringing them back in was too much.

"Others said it was not a very proven vaccine and there might be fertility problems. There is no evidence for this and it should not be used as an excuse. The coming vaccination period should be a lot easier for people as they can apply it as part of their farming routine. And I do not think the cost of the vaccine is much compared to what bluetongue can do to your herd.

"Fortunately, very few of us have first-hand knowledge of bluetongue but in sheep particularly it can be lethal and at the very least leaves you with an animal which is severely debilitated and probably infertile. So you not only have the loss of production from that season, but also a hefty vet's bill.

"The effect is a little less in cattle but there is severe loss of milk, fertility and body condition, and the animal does not totally recover."

Although bluetongue is a notifiable disease (that is, Defra must be informed if it is confirmed), there is no policy of culling animals on neighbouring premises to an infected farm as happened during outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease.

But the disease is just one more problem facing the troubled farming industry. A bad summer made harvesting extremely difficult and farmers are now having to deal with the reduction of milk prices and increased running costs, leaving them feeling squeezed.

Somerset farmers certainly seem to be taking the bluetongue threat seriously and a Defra spokesperson reported a good take-up of the vaccine last year.

"Sales data from the supply chain suggests enough vaccine has been purchased to vaccinate between 80-90% of the susceptible livestock population in Somerset County."

Vet Jon Reader, who is the Large Animal Partner at Kingfisher Veterinary practice in Crewkerne, says take-up has been "exceptional".

"A practice meeting was held to try to explain both the disease and economic implications of animals getting bluetongue, with particular reference to the devastating effects seen in Europe. This helped focus the minds of farmers and explain that the relatively low-cost vaccine was vital to give.

"The practice caters for all large animals ranging from dairy herds with a thousand cows down to smallholders with one or two sheep and goats. Alpacas and llamas are also a speciality in the practice and also received the vaccine.

"Only a handful of farms have not vaccinated. This has generally been down to cost. In most cases the price works out for sheep at 58p and for cattle 1.16.

Jon urges farmers not to hesitate. "Without doubt the advice is that vaccination is vital. Don't hesitate - vaccinate."

Farmers on the Continent have suffered the devastation bluetongue causes for a number of years now, with deaths and reduced production creating severe economic hardship. In 2007 a surge of new cases occurred in France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, with many tens of thousands of animals affected.

Whilst our island status provides a level of protection against spread of disease from the Continent, scientists at the Institute for Animal Health in Pirbright, in collaboration with the Met Office, had predicted that given the right meteorological conditions, infected midges could be blown across the sea and feed on our livestock.

These experts were proved right with the first confirmed case of bluetongue in the UK on a farm near Ipswich, Suffolk, on 22 September last year, which was later traced to when a warm easterly wind from Belgium and the surrounding area rolled across the Channel on 4 August. BTV-8 was later confirmed to be circulating in the UK midge population and transmitting from animal to animal via midges during 2007. Since that time 149 premises have been affected.

From 1 September 2008, the whole of England and Wales was included in the Protection Zone. This means that animals are permitted to move freely throughout, avoiding the industry-crippling movement restrictions that came into force during the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001.

Dr Chris Oura, bluetongue disease expert at the Institute for Animal Health told Somerset Life: "Although we have done a fabulous job in 2008 to avoid the spread of BTV-8 in the UK through vaccination, we are still not out of the woods. It is essential that we continue to vaccinate against BTV-8 into 2009 as there is still a risk that the virus will be blown over in midges from the Continent or will be brought into the country in imported livestock.

"Although we have not seen any circulation of bluetongue virus in 2008, that does not mean that we have eliminated it from the UK. The virus can lie hidden in the animal population and we need to continue to vaccinate into 2009 to avoid any nasty surprises.

"We now have BTV-1 and BTV-6 on our doorstep so we need to consider carefully if we need to vaccinate our stock against BTV-1 which is circulating in Brittany. This poses a significant risk especially to Devon and Cornwall in 2009 as infected midges are likely to be blown over the channel from north-west France.

"Farmers need to think very carefully before importing animals from areas on the Continent where bluetongue serotypes are circulating - they may get more than they bargained for."

What is Bluetongue?

Bluetongue disease is a newcomer to our shores, having spread northwards through Europe from its origins in Africa. It does not infect humans but affects all ruminants - sheep, cattle, goats and deer, plus all camelids such as llamas and alpacas - but not pigs or horses. Infected insects pass on the virus when they bite a new animal to feed on its blood. Sheep show the most severe symptoms, with 70% mortality recorded in some cases, and a reduction in meat and wool production in those that survive. Cattle do not show such drastic signs but are nonetheless affected by the disease either through subsequent fertility problems or in its sinister transmission to unborn calves, which are often aborted, stillborn or deformed as a result.

If you suspect an animal may have bluetongue disease call the Animal Health Office on 01823 337922.

Defra helpline 08459 335577,

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