Bluetongue virus could cost the farming industry some £25 million a year if it gains a foothold here, Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew has warned.
The minister was speaking following a surge in the number of livestock imported from mainland Europe, where a number of fresh strains of the deadly virus have emerged.
Ms Gildernew pleaded with farmers not to risk importing BTV and to consider importing semen or embryos to improve their stock, rather than animals that could be infected with the disease.
She said: “I continually urge those involved in the importation of cattle and sheep to think carefully and consider the potential consequences of bringing bluetongue here. If bluetongue is confirmed to be circulating it would have major economic significance, as large restriction zones would be declared.
“Exports of susceptible animals and animal products, including milk products to certain markets, would also be affected. It may also affect the movement of animals.
“It has been estimated that if bluetongue became established here the costs to the industry would be around £25m each year.
“Until now we have focused on BTV8 but the emergence of other strains in mainland Europe reinforces the message that we cannot be careful enough.”
Bluetongue virus has become widespread in England after the first detection of a case on September 22, 2007.
It is mainly spread by midges but there is also evidence of it being spread transplacentally and by contact with infected matter.
Ms Gildernew said DARD continues to monitor the situation and is in regular contact with the authorities in Dublin to ensure measures are sufficient to protect Ireland’s bluetongue-free status.