Concern in Northumberland and Durham over livestock disease

A LIVESTOCK disease which causes severe birth deformities in sheep and cattle is expected to appear in the North East this spring.

A lone sheep braves the cold weather in Alston, Cumbria
A lone sheep braves the cold weather in Alston, Cumbria

A LIVESTOCK disease which causes severe birth deformities in sheep and cattle is expected to appear in the North East this spring.

The Government’s chief vet has told The Journal he believes it is now inevitable that parts of Northumberland and Durham will be hit by the Schmallenberg virus.

The disease causes late abortion or birth defects in newborn cattle, sheep and goats and antibodies to the disease have already been detected in one case each in Durham and Northumberland.

Last night the regional NFU branch said it was braced for a hopefully limited but still concerning outbreak of the disease when lambing begins next year.

Schmallenberg was first detected earlier this year and has slowly spread across the UK. While adult animals tend to recover unharmed from the disease those which catch it during pregnancy are at risk of giving birth to offspring with severe deformities.

In those infected, calves and lambs have been born with malformations of the limbs, damaged spinal cord and fused joints. Some animals born without deformations develop problems with their nervous system.

Adult cows suffer fever, reductions in milk yield and diarrhoea, which can affect their body weight and so their value. Adult cattle tend to recover after several days, however, and it is not lethal. There are no clinical symptoms in adult sheep.

Defra said the evidence currently suggests that the disease was brought into the UK from infected midges blown across the Channel. There is no cure, although work is ongoing to provide a vaccine.

Nigel Gibbens, chief veterinary officer at Defra, said it is likely most flocks in the England and Wales have in some ways been infected with the disease, with anywhere of up to 5% of newborn lambs lost as a result.

Asked if there was any compensation for farmers affected, Mr Gibbens said there was not, saying that “this disease is one of the harsh realities of farming”.

He added: “We do expect to see it in the North East but losses should be around 2 to 5%.”

That rate could be higher, he said, among synchronised flocks which become pregnant at the same time.

“In unlucky cases there may be instances when the infection arrives as many animals became pregnant, and those losses would be higher.”

Mr Gibbens said that animals infected during the first wave of infection in summer and autumn 2011 were likely to have built up some degree of immunity, meaning the initially heavily infected areas of eastern and southern England were likely to get off more lightly this time. Last night Richard Potts, the NFU’s Northumberland county adviser, said there was growing concern.

He said: “We have expected this disease to spread North, and it is something we have to be concerned about, a concern for the whole industry really.

“There is evidence that points to the fact that animals which catch the disease build up an immunity but that still means getting through this difficult period.

“At first this was a disease which just hit down south but obviously in future that is going to become more of an issue for us here, and we need to be vigilant and report any cases we come across.

“We could face a big outbreak or, hopefully, it is not too bad and we get by, but it is an increasing concern for farmers.”

Agriculture in the North East employs some 9,870 people looking after some 277,000 cattle and more than 1.8 million sheep, 13% of the national flock.

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