The humble midge is usually seen as an irritant rather than a threat. But just try telling that to farmers affected by the Schmallenberg virus.
Spread by the insects, the disease leads to malformed newborns in pregnant ewes and cattle, reduced milk production from cows, and increasing headaches for producers already coming to terms with the effect of a difficult 2012.
Now the disease is spreading across Shropshire – and the rest of the UK – at a rate of knots.
Figures released by Defra in January showed that Shropshire had seen more cases than any county outside the South West of England, where the disease is at its most prevalent, including two recorded reports of lamb deformations.
But updated figures released to the Shropshire Star show that the number of cases has accelerated since – and the number of cases of malformed lambs has increased as the lambing season has developed.
At the most recent count, 66 cases had been recorded in the county, including 12 in sheep, and four cases of lambing abnormalities.
As the lambing season continues, that number will almost certainly grow. There have so far been no recorded incidents of deformed calves.
It may not sound like an awful lot, but looking at the way the disease has spread causes more consternation.
As of February 24 last year, 76 cases had been discovered in the whole country, and none in Shropshire. It wasn’t until late October that the first reports of Schmallenberg were registered in the county.
It has now been detected in every county in England, and has spread quickly across county farms.
Even those figures, some farmers say, don’t come close to reflecting the severity of the situation.
Richard Yates has lambed 400 ewes so far this year on his farm near Bridgnorth, with another 400 still to come in March and April, and says the suggestion that only four farms have suffered lambing abnormalities is wide of the mark.
“It’s absolute bunkum,” he said. “Everybody has Schmallenberg.
“I went to do a blood sample on my dairy herd, and the vet said, ‘There’s no point, as every herd in Shropshire has tested positive for Schmallenberg’.
“About 10 per cent of my lambs were born dead or with Schmallenberg virus. They have rigid, fused limbs, and some have some quite grotesque deformities. Their legs are fragile, and break as you lamb them, or they can’t come out of the ewes.”
He added: “When you’re dealing with sheep and multiple litter sizes, one becomes used to deformities in lambs. This is something quite different, as the limbs are rigid.
“I have 100 cows, and we haven’t seen the deformities in them, but we have had reduced milk yields.”
Of course, disease in livestock is nothing new to farmers, and the latest outbreak does not rank on the scale of BSE or foot and mouth in its severity.
It also follows blue tongue disease, which was tackled with a vaccine, and a similar preventative measure is currently being developed for Schmallenberg – but is not yet ready to roll out onto farms.
Philippa and John Owen run a farm at Shobdon, near Ludlow, and suffered from a lengthy bout of Schmallenberg which has left them grasping for information on how to combat the disease.
Over the course of a devastating fortnight, the disease took hold of the farm’s 550-strong sheep flock. Around 100 lambs died in birth.
Mrs Owen said: “We started lambing just after Christmas, and the first 23 or 24 born were fine.
“We were aware of Schmallenberg being about, and had heard one or two people had it, and after that first few days we had a lot of Schmallenberg lambs – 19 in three days, and it lasted a fortnight.”
The disease went away and came back, and struck even after tests had shown the flock was clear of the disease.
“We had a few ewes that looked a little bare once they were in the shed, and with hindsight they were generally the ewes with these lambs,” Mrs Owen added.
“It came in all sorts of forms. We had fused joints, some with their heads back with their necks totally fused, some with knees bending outwards, some bent out at the shoulder with the toes pointing inwards, some ewes that had one affected lamb and one unaffected.
“It’s devastating, and it changed our approach into a salvage job, from a profitable lambing job.”
Those lambs that do survive may often be unable to be transported to market because of the problems with their limbs, while the birthing ewes can suffer internal damage if the signs of
Schmallenberg are not picked up early in the birthing process. When they are, vets are called in.
The disease is named after the town in central Germany where it was first located in 2011, and from where it spread across Europe.
Midges that bite infected livestock themselves carry the disease then give it to other animals, causing its increasing spread.
Carole Brizuela is a senior lecturer in the Animal Production, Welfare and Veterinary Sciences Department at Harper Adams University, near Newport.
She said: “There are other diseases in the same viral group in Asia and Africa, but it appeared in Europe, the Netherlands and Germany, in 2011, and it hadn’t been recognised before, it’s an emerging disease.
“Viruses change, and there’s always new diseases arriving.”
In recent weeks, the rapidity of the disease’s spread has eased slightly, as the number of midges in the air has declined, but that doesn’t mean the problem is going away.
The Government has so far treated Schmallenberg as a disease with relatively low impact, but is monitoring its spread.
In a statement, Defra said: “Schmallenberg is spread quickly by midges and our surveillance over the summer has shown that the disease is now present across England.
“Evidence from Europe and our own research suggests that some infected cows show symptoms such as diarrhoea, fever and reduced milk yield, with a full recovery over several days.
“Like in sheep, the main impact on cattle occurs if animals are infected during pregnancy, which can lead to malformed newborns.
“Once animals have been infected by Schmallenberg they develop a good level of immunity to protect them from infection the following year.
“Farmers concerned about other symptoms affecting their flocks or herds should contact their vet for advice.”
The statement added: “More research is ongoing both in Europe and in the UK to better understand the disease and assist the pharmaceutical industry in the development of vaccines.
“We understand that applications have been made to the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, who are checking both the vaccines’ effectiveness and safety before approving them for use. We hope a vaccine will be ready for use in the breeding season later this year.”