Ulster Unionist Party Leader Robin Swann has called on the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) to direct ‘all necessary additional resources’ to its labs after multiple cases of Schmallenberg disease have been reported in Northern Ireland.
A spokesperson confirmed that, to date, 14 cases had been presented to AFBI for testing, adding that the current levels do not represent a capacity issue.
Mr Swann, pictured, who is also the UUP’s agriculture spokesperson, described reports of the disease in Northern Ireland as ‘deeply worrying’, adding that it was ‘not completely unexpected’.
“A few weeks ago I urged farmers to show vigilance after the disease was detected in several early lambing flocks just across the border with the Irish Republic and now I am aware of at least four suspected cases in counties Tyrone and Fermanagh,” Mr Swann said.
Vets are also reporting cases of the disease in Mid-Ulster and in Ballymena.
Mr Swann said he had been talking to some of those affected and was made aware of other anecdotal reports of large numbers of dead lambs in other flocks.
He continued: “It is essential that DAERA puts all necessary resources into its Stormont and Omagh Veterinary AFBI laboratories. Already I believe Omagh has been presented with a large number of lamb carcasses for post-mortems.
“Given the virus was spread by midges, and the fact we are still relatively early in the year for lambing and spring calving, I fear we may be on the cusp of a much more serious and widespread outbreak.
“Farmers are doing the right thing by presenting dead livestock which they fear have been infected by the Schmallenberg Virus, so now it is essential that the labs have the resources in place to allow them to respond to demand quickly and effectively.
“Both AFBI labs here have the same opening hours of 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. The latest times carcasses can be dropped off is 4.30pm each day. I would urge DAERA to look at what can be done to increase the capacity between these hours, and consider whether the opening times should be extended to include the weekend. Over the next couple of weeks the scale of the outbreak will become clearer so it is essential that the operational decisions needed to respond to it are taken now.
“The Schmallenberg virus often leads to abortion and stillbirth of animals, but it also can cause the birth of weak, malformed animals. If farmers believe they have animals infected with the disease, as a first step I would encourage them to immediately contact their local veterinary practitioners for advice and guidance.”
A DAERA spokesperson explained that while Schmallenberg virus is not a notifiable disease in Northern Ireland, farmers were advised to contact their Private Veterinary Practitioner if they suspect the presence of the disease in their cattle or sheep.
The spokesperson continued: “DAERA receives updates from AFBI on a regular basis and is aware of the recent cases reported in Northern Ireland. AFBI have confirmed that to date in 2018, fourteen cases have been presented to AFBI for Schmallenberg testing and current levels of submissions do not present a capacity issue.
“The virus gives rise to only mild symptoms in adult cattle which are transient including fever, drop in milk yield and sometimes diarrhoea. In adult sheep few, if any, signs are exhibited. The main impact appears to be if cattle or sheep become infected when pregnant, as exposure to the disease can lead to abortion or malformations in the foetus. Any reported cases of deformed offspring that meet the clinical case definition are investigated by AFBI free of charge.
“A vaccine is available to safeguard against Schmallenberg Virus. The use of the vaccine will not impact farmers’ ability to trade their animals within the EU. Farmers considering using the vaccine should discuss its application with their Private Veterinary Practitioner.
“As Schmallenberg virus is not a notifiable disease, there are currently no movement restrictions in place and no controls are required.”
More information on the disease is available on the Department’s website: http://www.daera-ni.gov.uk/articles/schmallenberg-virus