A SHEEP watchdog is urging renewed vigilance as bluetongue cases are expected to rise this spring and summer.

Government vets have concluded there is a ‘very high’ probability of new bluetongue virus serotype 3 (BTV-3) infections due to the arrival of biting midges from northern Europe.

Following the publication of the latest risk assessment quantifying the risk of bluetongue virus (BTV-3) in the UK from the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), the National Sheep Association (NSA) is calling for increased vigilance amongst the nation’s sheep farmers to protect their flocks, and the national flock, from the midge transmitted virus.

NSA Chief Executive Phil Stocker said: “There is a huge amount of concern over how BTV-3 might affect the livestock sector this season and a lot of discussion within the industry and with Defra has been taking place over the best way to deal with this if and when it does appear.”

The BTV-3 strain of the disease was first identified in the UK last November in cattle and sheep in South East England but with virus carrying midges having reduced activity over winter due to colder temperatures the risk of disease was lowered. The risk of virus transmission is now expected to increase as temperatures rise but currently, despite the increase in midge activity, the risk of transmission remains low.

Mr Stocker continued: “NSA continues to urge sheep farmers to be vigilant to the signs of BTV-3 in their livestock, especially as there is no licensed vaccine yet available in the UK. We are encouraging the Government in their engagement with vaccine manufacturers on the development and authorisation of a vaccine for use in the UK. The Netherlands has employed an emergency use vaccination programme and if this gets wide uptake there it may help a lot in helping keep infection from arriving here.”

Sheep consultant and adviser for Sustainable Control of Parasites in Sheep, Lesley Stubbings said farmers must understand the current facts surrounding the disease.“The fact is, a single bite from a single infected midge will reliably transmit BTV-3. This means that trying to control midges is futile and is not going to impact on the risk of BTV-3 transmission. It is crucial that we ‘ACT’ with this knowledge in mind.”