NFU livestock chairman's horror over Schmallenberg outbreak

THE NFU’s livestock chairman Charles Sercombe has spoken of the devastating impact of Schmallenberg after the virus accounted for 40 per cent of his early lambing flock.

Mr Sercombe, who farms near Melton Mowbray, in Leicestershire, lost around 80 lambs as a result of the virus out of 200 scanned from his early lambing pedigree Charollais flock. With losses including some ET lambs potentially worth thousands of pounds a head, Mr Sercombe estimates the virus will cost him up to £15,000.

“We have lost 40 per cent of this Charollais crop. We are getting all sorts – deformed lambs, mummified lambs, twisted necks, fused limbs – it is very unpleasant,” he said.  

“In the grand scheme of things I will be able to stand that but if we lose 40 per cent when we get to the main lambing flock in March and April, when we expect 2,000 lambs, then I will be crying.

Mr Sercombe said the heavy losses in the Charollais flock were the result of a ‘perfect storm’ of the virus striking when early in the ewes’ pregnancy when they synchronised  to lamb at the same time.

He is hopeful the losses will not be as bad for the later lambing flock as, by the time, the ewes were in lamb, the midges were less active and the sheep should have built up more immunity.

Mr Sercombe says his problems are commonplace across the country as many more farmers are experiencing problems with newborn sheep and cattle that in the same period last year. Official AHVLA figures show the disease has spread across England and Wales and has been found on more than 1,200 farms in the UK, including 300 sheep farms and 59 cattle farms where ‘fetal malformation’.

Mr Sercombe said, in reality, the problem is wider than these figures suggest and challenged Defra and AHVLA over its repeated claims that SBV is a ‘low impact disease’.

“There is definitely a lot more about this year than last and when it hits a farm like it has ours it is certainly high impact. It is the uncertainty that is causing the real anxiety,” he said.    

He added that sheep farmers are being at a time when lamb prices are at their lowest level for three years and costs are being pushed due to extreme weather.

He called on the Government and the Veterinary Medicines Directorate to make ‘ever effort to ensure a vaccine is available later this year’ to give sheep farmers the choice of whether to vaccinate against this disease.

But Defra is sticking by its insistence that Schmallenberg is a low impact disease.

A Defra spokesperson said: “While our surveillance has shown that Schmallenberg has spread across England and Wales, we do not envisage any greater overall national impact this lambing season than we experienced last year.

“The overall impact of Schmallenberg has been low as only a small number of infected flocks and herds will experience losses.

“Our experience from last year and from Europe is that losses due to Schmallenberg in these affected flocks and herds usually represent less than five per cent of animals born.”

Defra also expect that flocks and herds infected last year to develop a good level of immunity to the disease.

“Higher than usual losses in a small number of flocks, particularly those synchronised for breeding, is likely to be an unfortunate result of the disease infecting the flock at the critical period of early pregnancy,” the spokesman said.

He said he hoped a vaccine ‘will be available in time for next year’s breeding season’.

Liver fluke

ANIMAL health chiefs are warning farmers to look out for signs of liver fluke in pregnant sheep after a rise in the number of deaths caused by the parasite.

Figures from SRUC vets said laboratories saw 200 cases of liver fluke in sheep between October and December 2012, compared to only 57 in the same period in 2011. 

In England and Wales, the AHVLA said there were 69 new cases diagnosed compared to seven for the same time period in 2011.

Readers' comments (4)

  • Defra appear to be sticking their heads in the sand yet again! 40% losses are considered low impact and unfortunate, what about the mental anguish this is causing? Come on Defra, sort your act out!

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  • Does the "D" in Defra stand for "daft"?

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  • How do Defra know SBV is 'low impact' if they have stopped collecting data? I am dreading lambing this year!

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  • if access to up-to-date information is easy for ordinary sheep breeders it should be even easier for NFU officials; the advice given was "lamb late" i.e. put the tups in late. Our lives are dictated by risk and evidence based analysis. What is the risk to breeders to lamb late for one year? Next year those ewes which had SBV lambs will be immune. Will Government support the production of a vaccine when the majority of the English flock will be immune?

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