New virus causing deformities at birth of lambs and calves

Schmallenberg outbreak has killed up to 35% of lambs on some Irish farms

Pregnant ewes on a farm in Wiltshire, England. Farmers across Europe are on the lookout for signs in their flocks of Schmallenberg disease, a virus that can result in congenital disorders and stillbirths when infection takes place during the early stage of pregnancy. In Ireland, cases have been reported on 76 farms,  but the number of farms affected is thought to be much higher. Photograph: Getty

Pregnant ewes on a farm in Wiltshire, England. Farmers across Europe are on the lookout for signs in their flocks of Schmallenberg disease, a virus that can result in congenital disorders and stillbirths when infection takes place during the early stage of pregnancy. In Ireland, cases have been reported on 76 farms, but the number of farms affected is thought to be much higher. Photograph: Getty

Mon, Mar 25, 2013, 06:00

Not many Irish people are familiar with a German town called Schmallenberg, but it has been on the lips of many sheep and cattle farmers since the lambing and calving season began.

A new virus that can cause foetal abnormalities and stillbirths in sheep and cattle was discovered in Schmallenberg in 2011 and spread throughout Europe. It was first detected here in a cattle herd in Cork last October.

Biting midges transmitted the disease to pregnant livestock and the results are now being seen as cows and sheep give birth to malformed calves and lambs, mainly in the south and southeast. Sheep flocks seem to be the worst affected, with lambs being born with bent limbs, twisted necks and brain deformities. Most are stillborn but some live for a short time. The disease poses no risk to human health.

Cases of the Schmallenberg virus on 76 farms have been reported to the Department of Agriculture but the number of farms affected is thought to be much higher. A department spokesman said it was not a notifiable disease so farmers were not obliged to inform authorities about an outbreak. Because many farmers and vets were now familiar with the signs of the virus, they don’t see the need to have it confirmed in a laboratory. Some farms have lost up to 35 per cent of lambs, but the spokesman said most affected farms would not have lost more than 3 to 10 per cent of lambs.

He said it was distressing for farmers to see lambs being born with grotesque deformities and it contributed to complications during lambing and calving.

The early lambing flock of IFA sheep chairman James Murphy was affected. “Some were hit quite severely. By the time I was finished lambing about 140 ewes, I had four or five ewes with lambs with Schmallenberg symptoms,” he said.

A vaccine is being developed in Britain and Mr Murphy urged the Department of Agriculture to make it available in this State as soon as possible.

“We need good facts and figures from the department. They need to guide us here.”

He said this was the second year of the disease for countries such as Germany and the Netherlands and Irish farmers needed to know how those flocks and herds performed this year. “Did this natural immunity that we are hoping for kick in? It’s important to know. Farmers are very concerned.”

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