Britain’s livestock industry is being put at risk by lax controls against bluetongue disease abroad and by farmers’ reluctance here to vaccinate animals against the virus.

Disease inspection procedures overseas and live animal shipments to the UK are under intense scrutiny after bluetongue was found in sheep imported from France and cattle imported from Germany

Andrew Praill, of the British Cattle Veterinary Association, said there was no specific requirement for animals to be tested before they were imported. The only requirement was for a standard clinical inspection that the animal was disease-free and fit to travel.

Any farmer who hadn’t yet done so should vaccinate immediately and think twice before importing livestock, said Mr Praill.

“In an ideal world, it would be certified that animals had been vaccinated before they were imported.”

Post-import testing

Although the infected livestock escaped detection overseas, the disease was picked up during post-import testing carried out at DEFRA‘s insistence on all bluetongue susceptible animals arriving from continental Europe.

France – where bluetongue vaccination is compulsory – is believed to be at particular risk of spreading the disease. Many livestock there remain unvaccinated and uptake has been slowed by a requirement that jabs are administered by a veterinary surgeon.

Mr Praill said he would be happier if there was more proactive disease monitoring on both sides of the English Channel. “If the domestic midge population becomes infected, it will be like creating airborne virus production factories,” he added.

But vaccine uptake has been as low as 50% in the livestock heartlands of south-west and western England – despite campaigns urging producers to vaccinate animals and DEFRA’s insistence that uptake has been a more reasonable 70-80% nationally.

Vaccination go-ahead

NFU chief livestock adviser Dylan Morgan said: “We have had good uptake so far on a national scale, but we have seen a dip in the percentage vaccinated in the counties which have come into the protection zone more recently.”

Herefordshire, Cheshire, Shropshire, Worcestershire and North Yorkshire have all received the go-ahead for vaccination after being added to the protection zone since July. But many farmers have still not vaccinated their stock, said Mr Morgan.

Some producers had been too busy silaging, hay-making and combining, while others were waiting until cattle were brought in for winter.

The perception of the disease as a problem limited to south-east England and Europe had also led to some complacency.

Bluetongue had caused devastating problems on the Continent in terms of mortality, fertility and abortions. “It is rampant again this year and it may already be circulating in this country. The only way we can protect our livestock is by vaccinating.”