Bluetongue fear puts Ulster farmers on red alert
Bluetongue has advanced relentlessly across Europe over the past few years and has finally reached the UK. Rural Affairs Reporter Linda McKee reports on how the province would cope with an outbreak
It's like Groundhog Day in the world of agriculture. We've had two foot and mouth scares and now the bluetongue virus is upon us, sparking panic.
In just a couple of summers, the virus has marched across Europe, devastating flocks and herds and sparking chaos as the farming industry struggles with the resulting disruption to trade. This year saw more than 9,000 confirmed cases - probably a conservative estimate.
Now that the disease has reached UK shores, farmers here are in dread of what could be in the wind. Northern Ireland escaped the latest foot and mouth scare relatively unscathed but bluetongue looks to be a different matter altogether.
At the moment, the three cases in England aren't classified as an outbreak but tests are being carried out to determine whether bluetongue is circulating.
The bluetongue virus differs from foot and mouth as it's spread by the humble midge instead of contact between animals. It was a disease of the Mediterranean until a couple of years ago when it began to make incursions into northern Europe.
The disease affects all ruminants, but takes an unusually hard toll on sheep. Infected sheep are likely to suffer from fever, swelling of the head and neck, respiratory problems, not to mention the worryingly high mortality rates. Until now, while cattle could be carriers, they usually didn't display symptoms.
The good news is that bluetongue is no threat to humans, that animals may not need to be slaughtered and an outbreak wouldn't result in export bans on food products. The bad news is that surveillance zones will run into hundreds of miles and, once established, bluetongue could be almost impossible to counter.
No one really knows why bluetongue has suddenly started to advance so fast, although it could be weather-related.
Several weeks ago, Chief Veterinary Officer Bert Houston identified bluetongue as the next major animal health threat likely to hit Northern Ireland - it may not be long before he is proved right.
He revealed that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) had already starting drawing up its Bluetongue Contingency Plan.
At the moment, DARD is warning farmers to watch for symptoms and to raise the alert if they spot anything amiss.
But the rules set up to curb the spread may prove unworkable, according to the Ulster Farmers Union. President Kenneth Sharkey brought members up to speed this week after attending an EU briefing on bluetongue.
Spokesman Joe McDonald says: "There were more than 9,000 confirmed cases of the disease this year in Europe and that is actually thought to be an under-estimate because vets have really been struggling to deal with the number of incidents. One person in the industry has even said they have stopped counting."
An outbreak in the UK would mean an surveillance zone of a minimum of 150km - or even covering an entire territory.
"From Northern Ireland's point of view, we would be very keen to make sure the disease-free status is recognised officially and we wouldn't become part of any control zone," Mr McDonald said.
Vaccination may be more suited to a bluetongue outbreak than for foot and mouth disease - but it's a while off yet.
"A vaccine is not available yet. We are led to believe that it's being developed at this point in time, but it's probably still a year from being an option for the industry," Mr McDonald says.
"Bluetongue is different because of the way it spreads. It's spread through the midge population which makes it very difficult to control - how do you stop midges from travelling wherever they want?"
Indeed, the European Commission appears to recognise that the rules as they stand are unworkable, he says.
"Because bluetongue has got such a grip on Europe and the control zones are causing so much disruption, they're looking at ways of relaxing the trade rules," Mr McDonald says.