A virus which causes fatal birth defects in sheep and cattle is again poised to rip through the Westcountry after vets have reported that up to 50% of some flocks were already affected.
The Schmallenberg virus was discovered in the UK just over a year ago, but within weeks had spread to the South West, wreaking havoc for farmers. Vets in the region say that it has once more been identified and is already taking a toll, despite being so early in the lambing season.
George Henry, a vet at Castle Vets in Launceston, said he had found a high incidence of Schmallenberg virus in sheep tested in the area and where lambing had been early. On some farms, up to half of lambs had been born either dead or deformed because of the virus he said, adding: "In effect they are born brain dead."
Mr Henry said: "The hope is that when we get through the early lambing the level will drop off, and by March and April the level will be much lower."
He said the disease was widespread in North Cornwall and a colleague had found it on the Isles of Scilly.
The virus, named after the village in Germany where it was discovered, was identified in December 2011. Carried by midges, the virus was soon afterwards diagnosed in the South East of the UK. The Westcountry's first case was in Cornwall in February last year and within a month farms in Devon and Somerset were also reporting infections.
According to the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency, there have been 58 confirmed cases of Schmallenberg in Cornwall, 89 in Devon, 49 in Dorset and 42 in Somerset already.
In sheep, the disease has largely manifested in foetal abnormalities, while in cattle the majority of confirmed diagnosis were as a result of blood tests prompted by low milk yield.
Last year, farming leaders said the worst cases of the disease had claimed up to 20% of newborns. The news that half of lambs in some flocks have been affected will heap additional financial worries on to farmers already struggling to cope with the wettest weather for a century and the worst harvest for decades.
Richard Haddock, a farmer from Brixham, said he had lost a quarter of his newborn lambs to the disease and called on the Government to take action. He said biosecurity must be stepped up and this could be funded through a small tax of 25-50 pence on travel tickets.
"We haven't reached the stage where there is going to be a shortage of lamb, but losses like this are devastating and I believe they could be prevented," he said.
In West Cornwall, Matthew Berriman, a vet at Rosevean Veterinary Practice in Penzance, said Schmallenberg had a "fairly major impact" on the dairy industry locally, causing lower milk yields and loss of fertility in cattle.
"When the virus was first diagnosed there was a milk loss, but there was also embryo loss," he said.
"Some herds have been very seriously affected with a 25 per cent drop in milk."
Mr Berriman said that last year all ten farms in a local surveillance group had found Schmallenberg infections.
He added that while livestock did recover from the infection, they were nonetheless waiting for the spring "with bated breath".
A spokesman for Defra said work was ongoing to identify a vaccination. "While the geographical spread of Schmallenberg is wide, the proportion of flocks and herds which suffer the birthing problems associated with the disease will remain low," she said.
"It is distressing for any farmers affected, but we do not expect significant losses from it over the lambing season. A vaccine is being developed, which if proved safe and effective, could be available in the UK in time for next year's lambing season."