Experts warn Schmallenberg is here to stay

Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

Schmallenberg, the new disease that is ravaging early lambing flocks in the southeast, is set to become endemic in Ireland.

Department experts confirmed that the disease is "very likely" here to stay following the publication of the latest number of outbreaks, currently at 33.

However, blood tests have confirmed exposure to the virus in more than 150 other livestock farms.

The southeast of the country is the worst affected, with some flocks experiencing lambing losses of up to 25pc. However, flocks and herds as far away as Sligo have also tested positive for Schmallenberg antibodies.

With hundreds of deformed lambs and calves born over the past number of weeks, frustration is growing in farming circles about the lack of information on dealing with the disease.

While it is believed that animals can develop immunity to the disease relatively quickly, many farmers are unsure as to whether they should bear the cost of carrying barren ewes that were affected by the disease.

"Farmers don't know whether the ewes that have been exposed to the disease this year are the most valuable because they will have immunity or whether they would be better cutting their losses by culling them sooner rather than later," said the IFA's national treasurer, JJ Kavanagh.

Cork-based vet, Bill Cashman, said that the latest research by the ministry of agriculture in Britain indicated that immunity was not as good as previously thought. As a result, infected flocks and herds are experiencing higher levels of infertility.

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All hopes are now being pinned on the development of a vaccine, with a version expected in Britain later this year. However, it's availability in Ireland will be dependent on the minister of agriculture authorising the importation under a special licence.

JJ Kavanagh believes that the Department of Agriculture needs to get more information out to farmers. "Help is urgently needed," he said.

When asked if Schmallenberg will become endemic in Ireland, the Department of Agriculture's Sally Gaynor said that this would be "very likely given the experience of this disease in other countries".

Ms Gaynor said that, while it was still too early to predict accurately, based on the British experience, between 4-6pc of holdings could be affected this year. "The within-herd/flock impact in terms of deformities is likely to be mild in most cases at 2-5pc of affected pregnancies, but moderate at worst." However, for highly synchronised flocks or dairy herds, the fear is that the losses will be much higher.

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