Schmallenberg virus ‘costing farms thousands’

First indications of the full impact of Schmallenberg disease are starting to emerge, with some sheep flocks reporting up to 50% lamb losses, costing their businesses thousands of pounds.

Industry organisations are worried the impact of the disease could be worse than initially expected for some producers, with others describing the virus as worse than Bluetongue.

The government is under pressure to approve a vaccine. And while the chief veterinary officer for England, Nigel Gibbens, has described the disease as “low impact”, producers are insistent it is not the case at farm level.

Carroll Barber, breed secretary for the Charollais Sheep Society, said it was the worst disease the society had experienced.

“We have had reports from 60 flocks experiencing substantial losses from 20% up to 50%. The losses have been widespread from as far north as North Yorkshire down to Lincolnshire, Devon, Cornwall and across into south Wales.”

Ms Barber said she was “frustrated” by Mr Gibbens’ comments and added she was worried the disease might be the final straw for some producers.

“We’ve had quite a few members say if a vaccine is not available soon, they will either quit sheep or not breed next season.

  • A Schmallenberg vaccine has been put forward for approval to the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD)
  • The VMD has requested additional information from the manufacturer
  • This has yet to be supplied
  • NSA stressed urgency of approval
  • NSA chief executive Phil Stocker confident vaccine available for this year’s tupping season

“They are not prepared to go through this again. This is not a low-impact disease and is far worse than Bluetongue.”

Speaking to Farmers Weekly, Oxfordshire sheep producer Tony Good said he had lost 300 lambs (17%) in total as well as 24 ewes, which he estimated had cost him about £22,000.

“We have had horrendous problems. It has been truly demoralising for our team. Lambing ewes containing a number of well-grown but deformed lambs resulted in 24 ewes dying,” he said.

Reports suggest well-known early lambing sheep breeds such as the Poll Dorset and Charollais have been badly affected.

Losses have also been reported in suckler herds.

Vet Maarten Boers, from The Livestock Partnership, said he had seen higher than normal empty rates in suckler cows and of those empty animals, more than 90% tested positive for Schmallenberg antibodies. “One herd of 1,000 cows had 200 empty. They were vaccinated for leptospirosis and BVD and I suspect that Schmallenberg had hit bull fertility.”

The National Sheep Association along with other industry organisations such as the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency, NFU and National Beef Association are now in talks about pulling together an industry-wide survey to assess the impact of the disease.

Phil Stocker chief executive of the NSA said: “We are still in the talking phase and beginning to pull together some questions.

“We hope to have a survey available to assess the impact in the next couple of months.”

Number of holdings with confirmed Schamallenberg    
  Sheep Cattle Total
England 275 631 906
Wales 12 49 61
Scotland 4 4 8
Nothern Ireland 0 1 1
Total 291 685 976

Views from the farms

Matt Holmes, near Exeter, Devon

  • Poll Dorset ewes
  • Tupped July
  • Lambing November/December
  • 20% loss

Matt Holmes has witnessed lamb losses in his stepfather’s flock as a result of Schmallenberg.

Out of a 70-ewe batch that lambed last month, 14 of the ewes gave birth to deformed lambs.

Ewes on the farm were scanned in early summer with 70 showing barren, which were consequently put back with the tup in July.

“It’s these ewes that have been infected with the disease, as the flock lambing in September was fine,” he said.

Mr Holmes reckons the disease has cost the farm at least £1,800 from the lamb losses alone.

Robert Hole, Sherbourne, Dorset

  • 450 Poll Dorset ewes
  • Tupped July
  • Lambing October/November
  • 35% loss

Out of 130 ewes put to the tup, Robert Hole said only 65 were in lamb. Tests indicated Schmallenberg virus as the problem with ram fertility also thought to be affected due to the disease.

Out of the 65 ewes that did lamb, 35% of lambs were lost due to Schmallenberg, with test results confirming virus exposure.

Mr Hole said: “It’s been soul destroying. Once you’ve seen deformities, you know you’ve got it and it’s just horrible. The biggest shock was when we scanned the batch of 130 ewes at the start of September and half of the ewes were empty. I’m just glad it wasn’t the main lambing flock which lambed in September and were all fine,” he said.

Most lambs were born at full term with a healthy twin often born alongside a deformed lamb.

“We also had ewes that had been scanned as carrying twins, but were only carrying a single and then passed a very messy afterbirth,” he said.

David Smith, Lincolnshire

  • 70 Hampshire Down ewes
  • Sponged 10 ewes to lamb start of December
  • 60 ewes lambing March
  • 80% loss (from the 10 ewes)

David Smith has seen high losses in a small number of ewes on his farm in Lincolnshire. Ten ewes were sponged, two of which reabsorbed and eight ewes scanned in lamb with 16 lambs in total.

“Out of 16 lambs we’ve had 12 Schmallenberg lambs born, three normal lambs and one lamb which will be fattened and not kept for breeding.

“It has been depressing to say the least. When the ewes were going into labour we were wondering what the hell we were going to get. We were pulling things out that were looking like aliens.”

Nick Hart, Herefordshire

  • 38 Charollais ewes lambing in December and 80 in March
  • Tupped July
  • 30% loss and one ewe

Retired vet and farmer Nick Hart believes Schmallenberg virus passed through his farm in mid-August when his early lambing ewes were 20-50 days pregnant.

Mr Hart lambed 38 ewes in December and has got 45 lambs on the ground.

“We have lost 30% of lambs including lambs that haven’t come out. I have never seen anything like it.”

Mr Hart stressed the importance of having a vaccine.

“Having a vaccine is a big deal. We blood tested five ewes and two had not been exposed. Next year that means there could be some sheep not exposed, so if it over-winters we will be in the same boat.”

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