Bluetongue: the background

British livestock farmers have watched the spread of the bluetongue virus in continental Europe with growing alarm for some time.Now it has reached UK shores with the first confirmed case in Suffolk.

"You can just feel the gloom descending again".

So said one East Anglian farmer last night as fate dealt the livestock industry another blow.

Foot-and-mouth disease, rising feed costs and restrictions on moving animals had already made 2007 a troubled year for the industry.

Now a Highland cow, Debbie - a star attraction at Baylham Rare Breed Farm in Suffolk - has become the first British casualty of bluetongue disease.

All farmers can do is wait in hope that she was an isolated case of the midge-borne disease as tests are carried out on the rest of the farm's collection of rare-breed sheep, cattle and goats.

But the livestock industry has been watching with increasing horror as bluetongue has spread steadily and seemingly unstoppably from North Africa in recent years.

Most Read

Midges carrying the virus appear to have reached East Anglia from the near continent where an estimated 4,000 cases involving hundreds of thousands of animals have been confirmed on farms in Belgium, northern France, Holland and Germany this year.

Livestock farmers on the eastern seaboard from Lincolnshire to Kent have been holding their collective breath and just praying that the midge would stay away.

It did seem as if the virus might just remain on the other side of the North Sea and the English Channel until the autumn, when colder weather would discourage the midge and give the industry more time.

But late on Saturday evening, the industry's hopes were dashed when the virus, which can cause mortality of up to 70pc in sheep, was confirmed by Defra's chief veterinary officer, Debby Reynolds.

Farmers have been hit by a triple whammy. First, on August 3, foot-and-mouth disease was confirmed by Defra, albeit it was fortunately wrapped up quickly. Then, a month later, restrictions were lifted only to be imposed after four days.

The second problem has been the doubling of animal feed prices. Feed grain costs, as wheat went from £85 a tonne last year to £180, are causing big problems. And some desperate pig producers, who want to quit as soon as possible to cut their losses, cannot even slaughter their sows.

Edward Stanton, who is a former regional chairman of the National Sheep Association and runs 550 ewes and has 80 deer at Park Farm, Snettisham, said: "Our feed is going to cost £220 or £230 per tonne as opposed to £120 this year. And it is the same with the cattle - you can't afford to feed cattle on grain now."

And now the third blow, bluetongue.

A month ago, Defra's Debby Reynolds highlighted the potential hazard to the country's sheep flocks and cattle herds from bluetongue, which is spread by the culicoides imicola family of midge. Another harsh winter would have probably kept the insect at bay and bought time for a new vaccine against this strain, the type 8, to be trialled and made available from summer 2008.

Several days ago, a leading Suffolk farmer Stephen Rash, who has got 150 cattle including 70 beef suckler cows with calves at foot at Hall Farm, Wortham, near Diss, thought that foot-and-mouth restrictions were about to be eased.

Last night, Mr Rash, who represents the county on the National Farmers' Union's ruling council, said: "I'm running out of words to describe it. You can just feel the gloom descending again.

"There is also a feeling of helplessness because farmers recog-nise that they can do little to protect their stock from these midges. With foot-and-mouth, disinfecting and good bio-security can go a long way to keep it under control."

Norfolk veterinary surgeon Chris Tomlinson said: "There is nothing in the toolbox which can be used. There is nothing farmers can do. You can't stop the midges getting in there."

It can cause a very nasty death in farm animals and especially sheep. "They get inflamed mouths, which is why it is called bluetongue," said Mr Tomlinson, who is a partner of the North Walsham-based Westover veterinary practice,

Jonathan Barber, chief executive of the British Charollais Sheep Society, was cautious about the likely impact of strictly enforced movement zones, which could stretch more than 100 miles from the source of the disease.

"I might be criticised but my impression from other European countries is that whatever they've tried to put in place doesn't work. The disease just runs riot because it is spread by a specific type of midge," he added.

"It is awful," said Mr Barber, of Crogham Farm, Wymondham, who added: "An awful lot of sheep farmers are just starting to ask whether it is worth continuing."

And specialist East Anglian consultant Peter Crichton said: "We can't sell sheep at the moment. We're ringing abattoirs and they're saying, 'Sorry, we're full. And by the way, the price is 180p or 190p kg instead of 230p to 240p.' It is an absolute nightmare and, with grain prices where they are, there is no incentive to keep livestock."

And a final puzzle: why did the Highland cow get bitten? Mr Rash, who used to breed Highland cattle, said: "These cattle have really hairy coats and a thick skin designed to keep the Scottish midge at bay. How did it manage to bite her?"

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter