A deadly virus sweeping across Europe which could be 'a catastrophe' for the farming industry has reached the West, Government scientists revealed last night.
The Schmallenberg virus causes stillbirths and birth defects in sheep, goats and cattle and is so new there is no treatment and no cure.
Yesterday, the Government's vet agency confirmed that the first case has been reported in Wiltshire, leading to fears that this year's lambing season could be badly hit.
The chairman of the NFU's livestock board, Alistair Mackintosh, said the virus, which is named after the German town where it was first spotted and discovered only last year, has "the potential to become a catastrophe in the UK".
It is believed to be spread by midges and is not thought to be a danger to humans, but farmers have little or no defence against it for their livestock. After the first cases last year in Germany, it quickly spread to Holland last autumn, and by early this year had been seen for the first time in East Anglia and Kent.
Last week, the first case was seen in Cornwall, and Dorset and Somerset were deemed to be at high risk. But the first case in the West was diagnosed further north in Wiltshire yesterday. Experts fear more flocks of sheep are affected but the full extent will only be known when lambing begins in earnest next month and in April.
It could devastate this year's spring lambing season, according to NFU delegate and sheep farmer Frank Langrish, who said cases were growing quickly. "Ewes scanned in lamb are empty. The losses are ten per cent from re-absorption alone. Deformed lambs account for another 15 per cent. It will be worse than bluetongue. We don't even have a vaccine," he said. Mr Mackintosh urged West farmers to report any suspicious births they may be encountering in the coming days and weeks, and the rapid spread of the virus has sparked fear among farmers across the region. In January it was reported at just four farms. By the first weeks of February, the virus was discovered at 29 farms and this week, with the first case in the West, the number has risen to 58 – a rate of more than one a day since the start of the year.
The Government's Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) yesterday upgraded the risk for farmers from the virus in Wiltshire, Somerset and Gloucestershire, in light of the Wiltshire case. The AHVLA said the biggest risk appeared to be to sheep herds – only three of the cases so far in Britain have involved cattle.