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Culicoides sonorensis the bluetongue virus biting midge

Culicoides sonorensis the bluetongue virus biting midge

I’ve been hanging onto this story to see if there were any developments. To date, there haven’t been.

Last week bluetongue serotype 1 (BTV1) was found on a farm in the North West, near Blackpool. It was detected in five imported pedigree Bazadaise dairy cattle from an area in France battling with both BTV1 and BTV8. The cows were culled along with one other animal in the same consignment.

These cows were moved perfectly legally having been vaccinated against BTV1 and BTV8 sixty days before travelling to the UK, following the current procedure set out by DEFRA. But, the cattle appear to have been infected with the BTV1 strain of the disease around the same time they were vaccinated and showed low level viremia when post-imported tested by DEFRA.

Defra said there was no evidence of the disease circulating, so no movement controls or additional restrictions had been put in place.

Chief veterinary officer Nigel Gibbens said:
“Taking into account the epidemiological evidence and the consideration of the risk represented to British livestock, I have taken the decision to cull these animals.
This incident shows how important it is for farmers to consider potential disease risks when buying stock. Buyers need to consider how best to protect their own businesses and those of their neighbours and make sure they are clear about the stock they are intending to buy.”

Too right it does!

What astounds me is the lack of compulsory testing before the animals are exported. I know if I wanted a particular breed of cattle I would think very, very carefully about purchasing my breeding stock from a country  reeling from the effects of Bluetongue strains not yet present in the UK (well actually, I just wouldn’t!). If it was a matter of life and death (though for the life of me I can’t see that anything would be that important) I would insist on the animals being tested  prior to they leaving their home premises and before they were anywhere near British shores.

Dr Ruth Watkins at least seems to understand the risks involved when importing animals from Bluetongue infected countries. From a conversation she had with Warmwell

“From a diagnostic and virologist point of view,” she says “when vaccinating cattle for possible export – (valuable animals that are special in some way) – blood samples should be taken and stored at the time vaccination is begun and then, three weeks after the second dose of vaccination, when it is known for sure that animals are going to be exported, a further blood sample should be taken. Both blood samples should then be tested for the presence of antibody and checked for bluetongue virus RNA1 and 8 or other serotypes.
While such tests might cost up to £100 pounds or so, the £1000s spent on pedigree animals and transport puts such a figure in perspective. A farmer gets no compensation for imported animals that are subsequently culled – but if such testing were done before animals are moved into the UK it would do much for the safety of movements and the reputation – and pockets – of both importers and exporters.”

She adds ruefully, “Most farmers don’t understand enough about testing. Rational virus diagnosis – i.e. using all the tests at your command – is not routinely practised and understood in veterinary medicine – but surely farmers would rather these tests were done.”

I most certainly would – wouldn’t you?

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Yesterday evening I watched as clouds of midges danced in the golden rays of the setting sun outside the kitchen window. I tried to take a photo of them. This is the result.  Fireflies?  Perhaps.  Fairies?  Possibly.  Dancing debris from a fire?  Could be.  But midges?  No!

dancing cloud

dancing cloud

Midges bring with them a sinister reputation. The more so since I’ve heard this disquieting news through the Farmers Weekly.   Many farmers, with animals already stressed by the dire weather, believe rumours that if vaccinated against bluetongue disease they might fail to breed.  FWi reports “The doubts over vaccinating were reflected at Penrith livestock market which reported that of 6000 mules through only two batches of ewes were vaccinated”.

The uptake of the vaccine has been so low in the North of England that only one in five livestock farms is protected.

A Cumbria suckled calf producer is quoted as saying “I’ve decided to leave my vaccine in the fridge until the spring. I want my cows safely in calf and a crop of calves on the ground before I start to jab.”

Chief veterinary officer Christianne Glossop reports that the uptake of vaccine in Wales has been disappointingly low. FWi quotes Alun Edwards, a Welsh farmer and Farmers Union of Wales office holder, as saying producers who resist vaccination to be “bloody idiots”.

I can only speak from my own experience.

I vaccinated in late May as soon as the vaccine was available in Devon. My bull had only been running with the cows for a couple of weeks before I vaccinated and as far as I know, to date, all cows and heifers I would expect to be are in calf. I had the most vulnerable animals PD (pregnancy diagnosed) when I was bTB testing the other week and they are 2½ -3 months in calf.

Despite the weather, and vaccination, my lambs have grown well and have killed out at a good average weight of 15-16kgs – Whiteface Dartmoor lambs give a small to medium size carcass. The tups go in with the ewes at the end of next week, so I will soon see how that goes.

I urge farmers to think really carefully about the consequences of not vaccinating. If your animals contract Bluetongue, even if they don’t die (with up to 70% mortality in sheep) they will suffer horrendous consequences. Abortion, stillbirth and neonatal mortality are increased with survivors suffering from infertility, depleted lactation and chronic weight loss. These things are a certainty. I know vaccination’s an added cost in a year that’s bleak, but the consequences, emotionally and financially, will be a hundred times worse with the disease.

For immediate up-to-date information on bluetongue and the various forms of available vaccination in the UK, and on the continent, follow this link to Warmwell.

Mr Edwards also questioned the sanity of importing livestock from infected areas following the first cases of bluetongue found in imported cattle on a Denbighshire farm.

So do I. So do I!

death dance?

death dance?

Culicoides sonorensis, bluetongue disease biting midge

Culicoides sonorensis, bluetongue disease biting midge

I’ve just heard that Bluetongue Disease has been found on a farm in Devon, not million miles from here.

‘A total of eight heifers at the farm in Tiverton have tested positive for the non-contagious virus.
The animals were among a consignment of 35 Holstein heifers imported from Germany within the last week.
The cases were detected by routine testing, which is carried out on all bluetongue susceptible animals arriving from continental Europe.’

So says the BBC online news. It goes on to say

‘The heifers were transported from a bluetongue protection zone in Germany to Devon, itself within a protection zone.
A Defra statement said: “It is not unexpected to find infected animals in the protection zone.
“There is no evidence to suggest that the virus is circulating between local midge and animal populations in the local areas.
“Full epidemiological investigations are underway.” ‘

I am very puzzled. Why weren’t the heifers tested before they left Germany?
And why ‘is it not unexpected to find infected animals in a protection zone’?

Are DEFRA forgetting they made the majority of England part of the protection zone so they could bend EU rules and allow a vaccination programme to be put in place? It was not, in the majority of counties, because there were infected midges and animals in those areas.

Could this be an experiment to see if the vaccine holds up under fire? Oh, oh those damn conspiracy theories! But remember we’ve all been told it only needs one midge to have a blood meal from an infected animal for the disease to go on the rampage.

I was beginning to feeling quietly confident that England’s firewall of vaccinated animals was giving us the protection we needed from the continental wind blown Culicoides midge. Arriving on our shores by its own volition is something we can do very little about, apart from vaccination and being prepared as best we can. But to import the disease? Now? When midges are at their hight? This takes the biscuit.

So, very well done someone out there. I hope you’re pleased with yourself. My nice little security blanket’s been stripped away. Maybe my worry is completely unfounded, I sure hope so.

sheep suffering with bluetongue disease

sheep suffering with bluetongue disease

It was hot and windy and oh-so-bright. Friday, last week. The sea spangled and sparkled in ten million dazzling triangles momentarily blinding the eye with strings of black blots gliding across a backdrop of shimmering rainbows.

We strolled slowly through the crowds, contented cats full of tapenade (a paste of olives, tuna, anchovy and capers), anchoïade (crushed anchovies in oil, served with raw vegetables), grand aioli (poached salt cod, with vegetables and aioli sauce), farci (aubergine, courgette, tomato, onion stuffed with a delicately perfumed forcemeat on a rich tomato sauce) and tourte (a pie of potatoes, onion and garlic bound together with cream and eggs, wrapped in cured ham and crumbly pastry, served with crème fraiche and salad) washed down with glasses of ice cold rosé, the palest of pale pink. We watched in relaxed companionship the remains of the morning’s fish market being packed away and listened to the harsh nasal twang of swarthy Marseillais fisher-folk as they hollered and shouted to one another across the port above the impatient revving traffic and gush of their flushing hoses. Little Camille, entranced by twinkling rainbow prisms caught in the cascade of cleaning water, ran, arms outstretched, trying to catch the elusive crystal drops. And a seagull shat on Benjamin.

In all the clamour I almost didn’t hear it. Insistent, irritated it brring-brringed, bring-brringed, brrringed against my hip. My phone! I pressed it firmly against one ear but even with my hand clamped tightly over the other could barely make out the faint voice at the other end.

“Mum…..bluetongue…we’m….ade….Devon now’s….red could…tion zone!”

“What? What? Olly, can’t hear…shout. Very noisy. What’s that? What? Ohmygod did you say we’re now a protection zone. Oh shit, oh no! Where is it? When did it happen? Have you phoned the vet? What did they say? Oh heavens. You’ll have to vaccinate. Is there any vaccine? What did you say the vets say? What? When? Hang on. Hang on, I’ll just find a hiding place. You want me to come home? Hang on.”

Eventually I got the gist of Olly’s call. We didn’t have bluetongue disease in Devon. The vaccination programme had been going so well they had now advanced the protection zone to Devon. Vaccine should be made available from the 26 May. Hoorah! This was good news, not the catastrophe I originally thought. I asked Olly to call the vets, confirm our stock numbers and get an idea of when the vaccine would be released. A couple of frustrating shouted calls later and we had a clearer idea of timing. The vaccine most probably wouldn’t be available until I was back.

We arrived back last night. I phoned the vets first thing this morning. My vaccine would be ready for collection after four this afternoon. I’ve got it. It’s in my fridge…and tomorrow, first thing, we’ll start bringing the stock back to begin our vaccination programme. Soon, but not just yet, I’ll breath a little more freely!

Locks Park Farm

Thanks for visiting my blog. All entries are presented in chronological order.

I have a small organic farm on the Culm grasslands near Hatherleigh in Devon, with sheep and beef cattle. I've been farming in the county for more than 30 years. I've set up this blog to share views on farming and the countryside - please do give your thoughts.

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The Campaign to Protect Rural England has helped set up this blog. We want farming to thrive in England, and believe that it is essential that people understand farming and farmers better in order for that to happen. Paula's views expressed here are her own and we won't necessarily share all of them, but we're happy to have helped give her a voice.

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