THE confirmation of several cases of Bluetongue disease in the Netherlands - and suspected cases in Belgium and Germany - poses a huge threat to the EU's livestock industry.
John Kinnaird, the president of NFU Scotland, said: "We certainly believe that risks of disease spread are increasing. Foot-and-mouth is rampant in South America, yet Brussels is refusing to take any meaningful action.
"Bluetongue could be another big problem, and it is imperative that governments, including the Scottish Executive, put measures in place to protect not just farmers, but also consumers. If farmers lose their basic breeding stock, then prices in the shops will rise."
All trade of ruminants out of the Netherlands has been suspended and a 20km quarantine zone has been imposed around the infected premises. Bluetongue is a viral disease carried by several species of midge and affects cattle, sheep and goats. However, sheep suffer most and up to 75 per cent of animals can die in a severe outbreak. The disease was first identified in South Africa many years ago and has subsequently been found in many countries in the tropics and sub-tropics.
Since 1999, Bluetongue has been discovered in European countries including Greece, Italy, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Kosova, Spain and the French island of Corsica. The most serious outbreak was two years ago in southern Spain. Large numbers of sheep died and the livestock industry was seriously disrupted for many months.
Until very recently the balance of opinion among veterinary experts was that Bluetongue was unlikely to spread to northern Europe. The Netherlands outbreak is 300 miles further north than any other previous incident.
Bluetongue has never been recorded in the UK or Ireland, but Debby Reynolds, the head of the State Veterinary Service, warns: "The whole livestock industry must be on guard against this threat and report any suspicious symptoms to vets immediately."
The symptoms in sheep include a fever, which may last several days, hyperventilation, swelling of the lips and excess salivation. Nasal discharges are common as well as swelling of the head and neck. Infection during pregnancy usually results in abortion and congenital deformities. In cattle there are no visible clinical symptoms and the disease can only be confirmed by laboratory testing.
A spokeswoman for the Executive said: "While the risk to the UK is considered low, sheep keepers are encouraged to be vigilant and report any suspicions to the State veterinary Service. It should also be stressed that there are no known human health implications."
The EU has a sheep population of almost 90 million head, and the UK is the largest producer with 15.6 million ewes and an overall population of 24 million head. Just short of 80,000 holdings in the UK keep a flock of breeding ewes, producing 325,000 tonnes of sheep meat each year.
With the memories of the foot-and-mouth crisis of 2001 still fresh, no UK farmer would seek to profit from the misfortune of colleagues on mainland Europe. But large numbers of live sheep are exported from the Netherlands to France and with that source of supply now suspended the French trade will have to look at alternative markets.
The UK and Ireland would be the obvious sources. Last year the UK exported 87,000 tonnes of sheep meat, most of it into the French market.
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