Ongoing threat of epizootic disease this winter

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​Most notable in recent headlines, ruminant owners will have been concerned to learn of a confirmed case of Bluetongue BTV-3 in a single cow in Kent.

Up until this point, the English Channel had constrained the disease to the Netherlands and Belgium. The Netherlands has a fairly widespread incidence of the disease, mostly spread by biting midges. Whilst the onset of autumn and colder weather should suppress the activity of such a vector, all signs are that England’s first case of BTV-3 is likely to have been midge borne transmission across the English Channel. The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) understand that the infected animal was home bred, with no imports to the herd, and remains a single case within this herd. The infected animal has now been culled and a 10km control zone has been established around the affected herd. Additional surveillance is underway to rule out any further cases in nearby areas.

The confirmation of BTV-3, for which no vaccine is currently available, has had the result of closing live trade of animals from Great Britain (GB) to Northern Ireland (NI) with immediate effect. The movement of germinal products has also been affected.

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DAERA are currently undertaking a trace and test process of all animals which moved GB-NI since 1 October 2023. Whilst the trade restrictions which were implemented have inconvenienced some UFU members, they are critical to protect NI from the spread of the BTV-3 virus. Pending completion of testing the traced animals, and dependent of the extent of the outbreak in England, it is hoped that DAERA will then be in a position to approach the European Union with regard to resumption of trade from at least some areas of GB.

African Swine Fever

The pork sector has been raising concerns for years now around the risk which African Swine Fever presents to the NI industry. Historically, we have reported that the disease is endemic in areas of eastern Europe. NI is fortunate in that, unlike many areas of Europe, we do not have wild boar which are the common wildlife hosts for this disease. Wild boar are commonly occurring in most areas where infection is found. That said, anyone keeping pigs in NI as a backyard pet/hobby, has a huge responsibility to deploy suitable husbandry and biosecurity measures.

The UFU has been engaging with DAERA and other key stakeholders continually regarding implementation of maximum deterrents at borders, citing that the biggest risk of an incursion was likely to come by human movement of infected pork products. Our position is to ensure that any such product is seized before entering NI, and that appropriate sanctions are in place to prevent entry to our region.

The importance of our ask was underlined by the notable spread of ASF to Sweden in September 2023. Such a seismic movement can only have been as the result of human movement. The Swedish government reacted quickly, erecting fences to limit the movement of wild boar in the infected zone and a cull was deployed. No further spread of the disease has been reported.

Avian Influenza (AI)

The poultry sector needs no reminder of the horror which AI has brought to the British Isles over the last two years. Whilst the number of outbreaks has diminished in recent weeks compared to last year, it is critical to note that migratory movements are only now in full flow. That said, the poultry industry must remain fully armed with a suite of biosecurity tools to protect itself from the potential influx which is moving toward these shores.

Any decisions on the housing of free-range birds will be made by DAERA in conjunction with industry stakeholders and are risk based. The sporadic cases in mainland GB which have continued into the autumn, serve as a reminder that the disease continues to circulate. Whilst vaccination trials are underway in parts of Europe, trade barriers remain to the deployment of a vaccine, and currently costs would be prohibitive to widespread rollout. As such, biosecurity is the only tool to protect NI flocks from infection and must be maximised.