Surge in cases of Schmallenberg impacting lambing

Sheep farmers have noticed a concerning rise in the number of lambs being stillborn due to Schmallenberg, with early lambing flocks being most affected.

The number of cases is thought to be the highest it has been for at least four to five years.

Phil Stocker, chief executive of the National Sheep Association (NSA), told Farmers Weekly they are hearing from an alarming number of members about Schmallenberg.

See also: Livestock farmers warned of potential explosion of diseases

Mr Stocker said: “It does seem to be most focused in the West Country and the West Midlands, where there are probably a higher percentage of early lambing flocks, which appear most susceptible.”

He noted that a high number of farmers in Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Shropshire had reported heavy losses, but added that there had also been cases in other regions such as East Anglia and Yorkshire.

“This is a virus that is cyclical – sheep will build up a resistance or immunity to it. But then when you get a naive sheep population breaking through after a couple of years, it means when it breaks out, they can get infected,” said Mr Stocker.

Schmallenberg was first detected in the UK in 2012 with a large initial outbreak, cases were then lower for a few years before peaking in 2017 and it appears to be more prevalent again in 2024.

An update by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (Apha) said it is thought that these peaks and troughs are related to waxing and waning of national herd and flock immunity.

Somerset sheep farmers Sadie and David Champion have lost a number of lambs so far this year as a result of Schmallenberg.

Ms Champion told Farmers Weekly that when the first lamb was stillborn, they noticed it was slightly parrot mouthed, the body was too short, and the legs were very long.

At the time, they didn’t think any more of it, however after a couple further similar cases, they decided to call out the vet.

In total, they had five losses due to Schmallenberg out of their first batch of 17 pedigree Greyface Dartmoor ewes, with the remainder of the flock due to lamb in March.

“We also had a lot of fertility problems in the sheep as well, which the vet said is probably connected,” added Ms Champion.

Lamb with Schmallenberg

Vaccine latest

A vaccine was created for Schmallenberg following the UK outbreak in 2012, however it’s no longer being produced due to lack of demand.

It is now too late to vaccinate sheep for this year’s lambing due to ewes typically being infected by midges in the earlier stages of pregnancy.

Mr Stocker said demand for a vaccine is likely to be much higher again towards tupping time in the middle of summer and hopes that the vaccine manufacturers will recommence production.

He added that it is important that farmers that suspect Schmallenberg get it tested in order to help evidence the need for a vaccine to manufacturers.

Apha has also announced it may offer free testing for Schmallenberg during 2024.

It said: “Please discuss the case with a veterinary investigation officer to assess the appropriate investigation and samples and to make prior arrangement for a submission.”