What is bluetongue?
Bluetongue disease is caused by a virus transmitted by biting midges, which are most active between May and October. Bluetongue virus can infect all ruminants (e.g. sheep, cattle, goats and deer) and camelids (e.g. llama and alpaca). Sheep are most severely affected by the disease. Cattle, although infected more frequently than sheep, do not always show signs of the disease.
Outbreaks of bluetongue affect farm incomes through reduced milk yield, sickness, reduced reproductive performance (failed pregnancies, abortion, central nervous system deformities in the calf or lamb) or, in severe cases, the death of adult animals.
Bluetongue virus does not affect people and consumption of meat and milk from infected animals is safe.
Bluetongue is a notifiable disease. That means if you suspect an animal is showing signs of disease you must tell the Animal and Plant and Health Agency (APHA) immediately. Failure to do so is an offence.
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Bluetongue serotype 8 and 4 (BTV-8 and BTV-4) is currently circulating in France.
Since January BTV-4 has been reported in various regions across France including near the northern coast, see blue stars on map. A restriction zone (pink area on map), is in place across the whole of mainland France for BTV-4 and BTV-8. Animals must be correctly vaccinated against BTV-4 and BTV-8 or be naturally immune to both virus serotypes, prior to leaving the restriction zone.
The UK remains officially bluetongue-free and the risk is classed as low.
It should be noted that this level of risk may change as the vector active season (May- October) progresses. The impact of BTV8 and BTV4 in particular on the UK livestock industry, may be greater than that observed within France since the UK herd is naïve to the disease.
Bluetongue was successfully picked up in a few consignments of cattle and sheep imported from France through the UK's robust post-import testing regime in 2017 and 2018. The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) identified the disease in cattle in all these consignments and culled all affected animals. Trade of susceptible species may continue from BTV affected regions (such as France) to other Member States, provided the animals are vaccinated or naturally immune against the circulating BTV strains (both BTV4 and BTV8 in the case of France), and transport has been insecticide treated. Any such animals will be required to undergo a post-import blood test on arrival into the UK.
Importing livestock from BTV regions
Livestock farmers are being urged to think carefully about importing animals from areas that are known to be infected with Bluetongue virus.
The call comes after the virus was found, following post-import testing, in imported animals several times in less than 12 months. The infected animals have been slaughtered and no compensation was paid.
The midge-borne disease has been circulating around Europe with cases being reported in France, Switzerland, Cyprus, Portugal, Spain, Greece and Italy.
A cross-industry statement* said: “Bringing in diseases into the UK such as bluetongue would have severe consequences on the health and welfare of our livestock, which can result in widespread movement restrictions and costly surveillance testing.
“In addition to these costs, if there is spread into the national herd or flock, the country loses disease-free status, which can have a significant impact on trade.
“In order to continue to protect our herds and flocks, both locally, regionally and nationally, we must be vigilant when importing livestock from high risk areas, and perhaps even reconsider importing animals from areas where BTV is present.
“Importers need to be aware of the risks to the national herd and at the very least must consider pre-export testing consignments of animals imported from BTV affected areas. Such tests should provide confirmation of the BTV and vaccination status of the animals. The movement of herds or flocks should then be restricted until the required post-import testing is carried out. If imported animals are found to be infected with bluetongue, they will be culled, with no compensation.
“Any premises found to have bluetongue infected animals will then be placed under strict animal movement restrictions for a number of weeks, while extensive surveillance is carried out.
“Our message to all livestock keepers is to discuss any imports with their vets and consider choosing non-BTV restricted areas for the supply of stock.”
The three Chief Veterinary Officers of Great Britain said: “Bluetongue does not pose a threat to human health or food safety, but the disease can have a serious impact on farming productivity by causing infertility in sheep (which is particularly important at this time of year), and reduced milk yields in dairy cattle.
“The recent detection of bluetongue in imported sheep and cattle is another example of our robust disease surveillance procedures in action, and highlights to farmers the risks that come with bringing animals from disease-affected areas into their flocks and herds. It is also a clear reminder for farmers that the disease remains a threat, despite coming towards the end of the season when midges are less active.
“Farmers must remain vigilant and report any suspicions to APHA. They should also work with importers to make sure effective vaccination needs are complied with and that all animals are sourced responsibly.”
*statement supported by Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, British Veterinary Association, Hybu Cig Cymru, The Institute of Auctioneers and Appraisers in Scotland, Livestock Auctioneers Association, National Farmers Union, National Farmers Union Scotland, National Sheep Association, Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers
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Advice for farmers
Bluetongue does not pose a threat to human health or food safety, but can have a negative impact on farm incomes, for example by causing reduced milk yield in cows and infertility in sheep.
Farmers must be vigilant when importing livestock from high risk areas, and perhaps even reconsider importing animals from areas where BTV is present. If imports are required farmers must consider pre-export testing consignments of animals imported from BTV affected areas.
The UK has robust disease surveillance procedures and continue to carefully monitor the situation in France, where Bluetongue disease control measures are in place.
The latest assessment shows the risk of outbreak in the UK is currently low, but the detection of further BTV-4 and BTV-8 in France is a reminder for farmers to remain vigilant for disease and report any suspicions to the Animal and Plant Health Agency.
The impact of bluetongue on a farm business
Hear from Ken Proctor, he had Bluetongue on his dairy farm back in 2008, read about his experience, the short and longer term losses that his herd suffered and why the disease must not be treated with complacency.
An outbreak of bluetongue will affect farm incomes directly and indirectly. In addition to direct costs for treatment, loss of production, the necessary imposition of animal movement restrictions during a bluetongue outbreak might have an even greater negative impact on a farm business.
The current bluetongue disease control strategy imposes a control zone (CZ) of at least 20km around an infected premises (IP). No animal movements are permitted within the control zone.
At the same time, a restriction zone, consisting of a protection zone (PZ) and surveillance zone (SZ) is declared. The minimum size of the PZ is 100km and the SZ 150km from the infected premises.
Animals are free to move into the PZ and SZ from zone free areas, but are not then allowed to move out of the zones unless they have been effectively vaccinated at least 60 days previously, or have developed natural full immunity to the BTV serotype circulating. Any such moves maybe be subject to compliance with Government licensing requirements.
Movement within a zone is allowed, assuming that an animal does not show clinical signs of disease on the day of movement. Movement is allowed from the SZ into the PZ, but not from the PZ into the SZ unless certain criteria are fulfilled. Farmers on the border of these zones may also find their business disrupted
The zones may be expanded beyond their minimum, but this decision will only be taken in light of the specific outbreak situation and will be influenced by the rate of spread, time of year (vector activity) and other veterinary and commercial factors.
It is therefore very important, that any farmers who rely on long distance movements of their stock as part of their business model should consider vaccination as a sensible precaution, since if they find their farm premises located in a zone or part of a zone, there could be implications for their ability to trade.
Vaccination remains a proven technique for the prevention and control of Bluetongue and keepers are advised to speak to their private vet.
Although vaccine is not currently available in the UK, where there is a justifiable need, vaccine may be imported from mainland Europe on a case by case basis through a special import licence.
If there is wide demand then vaccine manufacturers may again be persuaded to provide vaccine direct to the UK market.
What you can do now
What to do if you suspect disease
If you suspect bluetongue you must report it immediately to the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA).
- England: telephone 03000 200 301
- Wales: telephone 0300 303 8268
- Scotland: contact your local APHA Field Services Office
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Signs of bluetongue
- Lethargy, reluctance to move
- Crusty erosions around the nostrils and on the muzzle
- Discharge of mucus and drooling from mouth and nose
- Swelling of the muzzle, face and above the hoof
- Reddening of the skin above the hoof
- Redness of the mouth, eyes, nose
- Breathing problems
- Erosions on the teats
- Crusty erosions around the nostrils and muzzle
- Redness of the mouth, eyes, nose
- Redding of the skin above the hoof
- Nasal discharge
- Reddening and erosions on the teats
- Cattle do not often show clear signs of disease so owners should also look out for signs of fatigue and lower productivity including reduced milk yield.
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Joint campaign Against Bluetongue – JAB
The industry has joined together to ensure that farmers and vets across Great Britain are informed about the risk of Bluetongue, raise awareness about the disease and what to do when they suspect it.
Who is involved…
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