Flocks hit with Schmallenberg

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The devastating effects of the Schmallenberg virus have come to light in flocks around Northern Ireland.

Sheep farmers across the province are confirming that they are currently dealing with problems caused by the Schmallenberg virus. The disease, which can also affect cattle, causes abortion and stillbirths associated with foetal abnormalities.

One County Fermanagh farmer told Farming Life of the problems he had faced in the last few months.

Colin Downey explained: “We have been affected by this horrible disease and lost approximately 30 lambs out of a small flock of 70 ewes. A large number of our ewe lambs that were kept for replacement ewes threw their lambs at an early stage and others had lambs that had dissolved inside them at scanning time.

“Thinking back to tipping time last August/September, our sheep were always scratching and we were tortured with maggotts. We used a sheep shower and our sheep were showered maybe up to five times. The vet says that frequent showering may have been beneficial because if we didn’t we could have had the whole flock infected with this disease!”

“At lambing time ewes were unable to deliver lambs themselves as they were deformed and stiff inside the ewe which made lambing very difficult even with assistance. We didn’t know which ewes were affected until they lambed.

“This disease has had a major financial implication for our business and we will not have as many lambs to sell later in the year,” he added.

Mr Downey says he is aware of a number of other farmers experiencing similar problems but that they aren’t willing to talk about their experiences.

He continued: “Farmers don’t want to go public with things like this but the way I see it is you need to let people know just how serious the problem is.

“Certainly for farmers who are lambing early, around Christmas time, like myself there is a need for vaccination against this virus.”

The current problems have been exacerbated because Schmallenberg is not a notifiable disease. As a consequence, farmers do not have to report outbreaks to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA)

The Ulster Farmers’ Union is aware of a number of reports that the virus has been identified locally.

Union president Barclay Bell said: “It is concerning that there are a growing number of reports of this virus being found in Northern Ireland. It is an awful situation for any farmer. No one wants to see Schmallenberg on their farm.

“The virus will have been spread by midges spreading the in the summer and autumn of last year. The only way to protect against it is to vaccinate. However, this would have had to be done some months ago to be effective. It really is a waiting game to see if flocks and herds have been affected.

“The UFU is encouraging farmers to be vigilant and recommend that they contact their vet as quickly as possible if an outbreak is suspected.”

A DAERA spokesperson said that, of March 6th 2018, the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) has confirmed 27 cases of Schmallenberg virus, all in sheep, in Northern Ireland.

“The geographical spread are eight in Co. Fermanagh, eight in Co. Tyrone, five in Co Antrim, two in Co. Armagh, two in Co Londonderry and two in Co Down,” said the spokesperson.

“Schmallenberg virus is not a notifiable disease under the World Organisation for Animal Health disease listing, and consequently Veterinary Authorities, such as the Department, are not required to take any formal action in dealing with non-notifiable diseases. Also, as it is not a notifiable disease there are no requirements to introduce movement restrictions or additional controls.”

The spokeseperson added: “There is currently no treatment for Schmallenberg virus, but commercial vaccines to safeguard against the virus are available for use in cattle and sheep. The use of a vaccine does not impact upon the ability to trade vaccinated animals within the EU. Livestock owners considering the use of vaccines are recommended to discuss its application with their Private Veterinary Practitioner before use.”

National Sheep Association (NSA) representative Edward Adamson said that flock owners across Northern Irelnd must now work on the basis that Schmallenberg represents a significant challenge for the sheep sector.

“It’s clear now that we have it in a meaningful way,” said Mr Adamson.

“The real challenge is ensuring that the impact of the disease is minimised as we move forward.

“Vaccination is the obvious solution in this regard. For those who do not want to go down this road, an alternative approach is to mix this year’s breeding ewe lambs with mature females as early in the season as possible.

“This approach should ensure that ewe lambs will not encounter the virus during the early weeks of pregnancy.”

DAERA has posted standing advice on our website on dealing with the Schmallenberg virus and recommending livestock owners to contact their Private Veterinary Practitioner if they suspect the presence of the disease in their cattle or sheep – http://www/daera-ni.gov.uk/articles/schmallenberg-virus.