A second cow has tested positive for bluetongue at the rare breeds farm where the UK's first case of the disease was discovered, raising the nightmare for farmers of the infection spreading across Britain.
Farmers had a double blow yesterday after a second suspected case of foot-and-mouth was found in Hampshire, causing fresh worries that the outbreak has spread across the county border from the farms surrounding the laboratories at Pirbright, Surrey, where it started.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said last night that tests had confirmed bluetongue in a second cow at the Baylham House Rare Breeds Farm, near Ipswich, Suffolk.
It was immediately slaughtered to limit the chances of the disease spreading. Bluetongue has already spread across the Continent to Britain. On Sunday, Debbie, a ruddy-haired Highland cow who was a favourite with visitors, was put down after being found to be suffering from the midge-borne disease.
Defra said it was not officially declaring it an "outbreak" of bluetongue because there was still no evidence that there was a midge population carrying the disease in the area.
However, the spread of the disease to a second cow raised fears that bluetongue could become endemic in Britain after coming across the Channel from the Netherlands or Belgium.
Farmers are desperately hoping that a cold snap with the onset of winter will kill the midges but it may already have spread further because the incubation period is more than a week and it may have arrived in Britain 10 days ago.
While tests continue to see if more animals have been infected, Defra announced that from 3.30pm today a huge bluetongue surveillance area restricting the movement of animals will be established over a 150km radius around the Suffolk farm where the disease was first found.
This is the maximum distance that midges can fly, but if they have spread from Suffolk, biting animals as they go, the infection could be much more widespread. It has spread like wildfire across farms in Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, having originated in Africa. Thousands of animals have died or been destroyed, causing massive losses for Continental farmers.
The bluetongue area will cover Suffolk, Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire. These counties are already covered by restrictions on animal movements because of foot-and-mouth.
A Defra spokeswoman said: "I can confirm a second cow has tested positive for bluetongue and was slaughtered this afternoon on the same farm. The evidence remained insufficient to confirm an outbreak."
British farmers had said they would view with horror the possibility of being hit simultaneously by outbreaks of bluetongue and foot-and-mouth but last night that was the prospect facing them as a 3km foot-and-mouth control zone was established at a second farm in the West Tytherly area near Stockbridge, Hampshire.
Farmers' leaders are already warning of extreme hardship ahead because of the restrictions on animal movement caused by foot-and-mouth measures, which have caused country fairs to be cancelled and suspended all trading in animals. Only the movement of animals for slaughter has been allowed and live exports have been banned.
Hill farmers will be particularly hard hit if they are threatened by the spread of bluetongue at the moment as they are seeking to bring down their flocks of sheep to lower pastures for the winter.
Meanwhile, experts investigating the cause of the foot-and-mouth outbreak came a step closer to identifying how it spread across Surrey. They said they believe that it had been spread from the laboratories or nearby farms either by a person or by a vehicle to some of the six sites identified in the area. That will increase demands for tougher bio-security measures at laboratories.
Amid appeals for help from farmers, the Chief Vet Debby Reynolds said the ban on the movement of animals will be relaxed in the Midlands and north of England from 3.30pm today to allow farm-to-farm movement. The ban will remain in most of the south.
The relaxing of the ban will allow farmers to move those animals that were left out in fields, but the ban on holding livestock markets has yet to be lifted.
Ms Reynolds said: "All these areas will be kept under review and we will continue with a risk-based, staged approach. We recognise the real economic and welfare pressures being experienced by farmers."