Confirmed cases of the Schmallenberg virus have soared by 24% in the past month, suggesting the disease is spreading rapidly through sheep and cattle this season.

The latest figures, released on Monday (14 January) by the Animal Health and Laboratories Agency (AHVLA), show 1,211 cases of the disease have now been confirmed in England, Scotland and Wales.

This is equivalent to an increase of 24% on the last survey results, released in December, which showed 976 confirmed cases.

The virus, which causes fatal birth defects and miscarriages in sheep and cattle, has now spread to every county of England and Wales and is wreaking havoc among livestock farmers, according to reports.

Devon, Cornwall and Dorset have recorded the highest number of cases – 126, 68 and 59 respectively. But a worryingly high number of cases has also been confirmed in Shropshire (56) Cheshire (53) and North Yorkshire (41), suggesting the disease is rapidly spreading northwards, as scientists had feared.

Wales has 104 confirmed cases of the virus, including 21 in Carmarthenshire. Scotland has nine confirmed cases – five in cattle and four in sheep – but all these cases relate from animals introduced into Scotland from English counties.

An AHVLA spokesman said: “The Schmallenberg virus has now been detected everywhere south of the England/Scotland border.

“We are now seeing an increase in confirmed cases in northern and western regions, including Wales, which suggests that for a lot of flocks and herds in those regions, they are effectively seeing their first year of Schmallenberg virus.

“The virus may well have worked through flocks and herds in the south of England where a level of immunity has been seen to develop. But that’s probably not going to be the case for farms in Northumberland and western holdings this year.”

Because the virus has now spread to every county in England and Wales, the AHVLA has stopped its free-testing service for Schmallenberg.

“We are no longer providing free testing. However, some farmers will still want to pay for testing to establish once and for all if they have got the disease in their herds and flocks,” confirmed the spokesman.

Farmers who suspect the disease in their livestock should contact their vets if they have any concerns, the AHVLA said.

The Schmallenberg virus causes mild to moderate symptoms in adult cattle, including fever, reduced milk yield and diarrhoea, and stillbirth and birth deformities in sheep, cattle and goats.

Scientists believe the virus first was spread to the UK by biting midges in the summer of 2011 and it first appeared on the continent before crossing the Channel.

A vaccine to protect livestock against the disease, produced by MSD Animal Health, has been submitted to the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD), and is waiting approval for full commercial use. However, it is understood that the vaccine may not be ready for introduction for this lambing season.

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