Livestock producers are being urged to step up their vigilance and biosecurity, following a series of outbreaks of bluetongue disease in sheep and cattle in northern Europe.

News of the disease broke at the end of last week, with confirmation of an outbreak in a flock of Dutch sheep – the first time bluetongue had been found further north than Spain and Italy.

By the time Farmers Weekly went to press on Wednesday (23 August) there had been 20 outbreaks in Holland, 17 in Germany and 15 in Belgium.

“These cases are a significant development for farming in north-west Europe,” said DEFRA chief vet Debby Reynolds.

“Anyone who keeps sheep, cattle, deer and goats should be on the alert for abnormal behaviour or illness and report it to the state veterinary service.”

The EU was quick to respond, imposing an immediate 20km “standstill zone” around each holding, in which animals have to be housed and sprayed.

A further 100km “protection zone” and 150km “surveillance zone” has also been imposed within which farms are inspected and movements restricted.

Holland and Luxembourg have gone further and banned all live cattle and sheep exports.

Bluetongue is a non-contagious viral disease of ruminants, transmitted by certain species of midges which feed on the blood of infected animals.

Until a few years ago, these midges were limited to Africa and Asia, but then spread to the southern most tips of Europe, then into Spain, Italy and parts of Portugal.

Scientists believe that the warm weather this summer has allowed the midges to survive even further north.

“Bluetongue is normally considered to be a disease which mainly affects sheep, but unusually we have received reports of cattle displaying signs of illness,” said Dr Reynolds.

DEFRA has begun testing all recent imports from countries affected by bluetongue disease, plus all new imports.

NFU livestock adviser Peter King said there were still many uncertainties about the origin of the outbreak, about the type and the vector.

philip.clarke@rbi.co.uk