Schmallenberg virus: Northern farmers urged to be on the watch for symptoms

A Co. Antrim veterinary clinic has urged stockmen to be vigilant, as it confirms seven cases of Schmallenberg virus in lambs and awaits the result of tests for the disease carried out on a calf.

It comes as several cases of the disease were also found in counties Tyrone and Fermanagh.

The disease had previously been detected in the Republic of Ireland, but appears to have moved north.

Richard Hood, a veterinary surgeon at Grove Veterinary Clinic, explained that a case in which two triplet lambs were affected in Ballymena was the first time he had come across the disease in his 10 years of practising as a vet.

He said: “As a vet it’s quite frightening, because you hear that a lot of the time they cannot be born naturally and need a caesarian. It’s financially unrewarding for a farmer to need to pay for a caesarian for two dead lambs.

“Unfortunately, these farmers won’t know their flocks have been affected until they start lambing.”

7% of the flock

He explained that one farmer had lambed a batch of 100 ewes early to reduce the workload later on, but found that 7% of the flock had been affected.

“The farmer would normally be proficient lambing his own flock; but, at around 2:00am, I received a call saying he had had some difficulty with one – he could feel it coming with three legs and couldn’t lamb it because it was deformed,” Hood added.

“The ewe had already had one normal, living lamb; but, the third lamb was also deformed.”

Once another ewe lambed under similar circumstances on the farm, the practice had blood samples taken and confirmed some of the flock had been infected with the Schmallenberg virus.

Grove Veterinary Clinic explained the virus is spread by midges and causes malformed lambs and calves.

Symptoms of the virus include:
  • Bent limbs or fixed joints;
  • Curved spine;
  • Fixed necks;
  • ‘Dummy lambs’ – alive; but, can be blind, unable to stand or suck, and may have seizures.
  • Abortions.

However, there is little farmers can do to prevent the disease at this stage; vaccination would need to be carried out the year before lambing, Hood explained.

He said there was no risk of transmission from the bodies of deformed lambs; but, he urged farmers to send the carcass off to an AFBI lab for sampling and to allow their local vet to take a blood sample.

With most flocks still around two weeks away from the start of lambing, he added that he expects many more cases to be discovered before the end of spring.

Schmallenberg virus Image source: Grove Veterinary Clinic
Image source: Grove Veterinary Clinic

Additional resources

Meanwhile, Ulster Unionist Party leader Robin Swann has called on the department (DAERA) to direct “all necessary additional resources” to its labs after multiple cases of the Schmallenberg virus have been reported in Northern Ireland over the last few days.

Swann said: “Talking to some of those affected, I am aware of anecdotal reports of large numbers of dead lambs in other flocks.

“It is essential that DAERA puts all necessary resources into its Stormont and Omagh veterinary laboratories. Already, I believe Omagh has been presented with a large number of lamb carcasses for post-mortems.

‘The cusp of something more serious’

“Given the virus was spread by midges, and the fact we are still relatively early in the year for lambing and spring calving, I fear we may be on the cusp of a much more serious and widespread outbreak.

“Farmers are doing the right thing by presenting dead livestock which they fear have been infected by the Schmallenberg virus, so now it is essential that the labs have the resources in place to allow them to respond to demand quickly and effectively.”

AFBI’s labs are open between 9:00am and 5:00pm, Monday to Friday. The latest carcasses can be dropped off for testing is 4:30pm each day.

Swann added: “I would urge DAERA to look at what can be done to increase the capacity between these hours, and consider whether the opening times should be extended to include the weekend.

“Over the next couple of weeks the scale of the outbreak will become clearer, so it is essential that the operational decisions needed to respond to it are taken now.”