Farmers who fail to vaccinate stock against bluetongue are “setting the clock on a ticking time bomb”, claims a leading German vet.

Johannes Winkelmann, who had been at the forefront of Germany’s bid to combat the spread of the disease, said farmers were being “extremely naive” if they thought the UK was going to escape the effects of the bluetongue virus.

Dr Winkelmann, who was in the UK to address a National Sheep Association meeting in Hexham, warned the industry would face massive financial losses unless livestock was protected.

“You must aim to have at least 80% of your livestock protected against bluetongue to stand any chance of controlling the disease.

“Annual vaccination must be vigorously maintained for several years before anyone can talk about possible eradication,” he said.

“Unless you set about this now you are putting your livestock industry at tremendous risk.”

He presented data showing the serious financial impact of bluetongue on farms in Germany, where he has been responsible for the bluetongue vaccination programme as head of the Animal Health Service in Westphalia.

It showed a 40% mortality rate in sheep infected with bluetongue while the region’s dairy farmers suffered heavy losses from long-term reductions in yield as well as widespread abortions, calf malformations and weakly calves. So far 400,000 cattle have been fully vaccinated in Westphalia.

“We monitored a 150-cow herd in Westphalia which suffered an income loss of E77,000 (£60,000) in one year because of bluetongue-infected animals,” he said.

He told the meeting he was “extremely alarmed” to hear many UK farmers were not vaccinating because of concerns over infertility as a side effect and that some vets had been advising clients to defer vaccination until the spring.

“Farmers in the UK shouldn’t waste their time worrying about side effects. There will be plenty to worry about if their stock is unprotected and contacts the bluetongue virus,” said Dr Winkelmann.