Livestock in Kent, Essex and East Anglia are most at risk from contracting bluetongue by means of wind-blown midges due to their close proximity to the Continent, according to the Institute for Animal Health.
The livestock industry has already been warned that it is possible that the bluetongue virus, which has been found in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and northern France, may reach Britain this summer.
Using data from the 2006 outbreak of bluetongue in Northern Europe, combined with meteorological data for the affected period from the Met Office, IAH scientists have estimated that livestock in the UK will be at risk between four and seven times a month between May and October.
A report in the latest issue of the Veterinary Record (31 March), estimates it would take just six hours at an average wind speed of 16ft/sec (5m/sec) for an infected midge to make the 62-mile (100km) trip from Ostend to the Kent coast.
But the authors note that for the virus to make the successful progression to the UK would require the right wind speeds and temperature.
Catherine McLaughlin, NFU animal health and welfare adviser, said the importation of an infected animal was another possible route of infection although all imported animals were being blood-tested for the disease and DEFRA had also banned the importation of animals from restricted zones.
DEFRA has recently stated that it is unlikely livestock would be culled should the virus be confirmed in the UK and concerns have been expressed over the impact movement restrictions could have on the industry.
But Ms McLaughlin said talks were still ongoing with DEFRA to agree a plan of action should the disease hit Britain. She said: “It is a new disease, so we’re all learning as we go along. Control strategies are being developed as we go along.”
She added: “At the moment we are all committed to stopping the disease getting in.”
WHAT IS BLUETONGUE?
Bluetongue is an insect-borne viral disease which affects cattle, sheep, goats and deer. There are no human health implications, which is why DEFRA is reluctant to cull animals. The disease causes fever, swelling in the head, lameness and respiratory problems in sheep and in cattle it causes nasal discharge, swollen teats, salivation and conjunctivitis. For further information about the disease visit the Institute of Animal Health website, which has a useful briefing page.