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Farms feel real impact of this horrible virus

By Cornish Guardian  |  Posted: February 14, 2013

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LOW IMPACT – that's how Professor Nigel Gibbens, Defra's chief vet, describes the effect of the virus on our farming industry.

He might have extensive experience of exotic diseases and their control, but I and everyone who has experienced the effects of this crippling disease would describe it as far from "low impact".

Financially, it is devastating. Ewes which lambed before Christmas suffered the most. A hundred ewes, on average, would have reared 150 lambs between them. When ready to market, these Easter-trade lambs fetch, say, £90 each. That's a £13,500 return, excluding production costs.

This year, Schmallenberg virus has infected half of those ewes, causing them to abort or produce deformed lambs. So, 100 ewes are leaving the lambing shed with just 75 lambs, to return £6,750 at market.

When Easter comes, even though farmers will now not be able to fulfil demand, a trade led by the supermarkets trade will never see prices reflect basic economic practice.

For ten days at the beginning of December my flock was hit hard. Half the lambs were deformed; either dead, or I had to dispatch them for humane reasons. Emotionally, it has taken a toll.

I have another flock to lamb in the spring and have no idea whether any of these ewes will produce viable offspring.

The same is true in the cattle industry.

A colleague who calves his heifers and young cows in the spring was not able to get them in-calf. They were blood-tested and all were positive for the virus.

Normally, those calves would be sold in autumn for an average £600. This year he will have nothing to sell. He is not alone.

Despite public opinion, farmers are very patient and good at dealing with a crisis. Months of extreme wet weather have played havoc with the corn harvest, hay and silage making, as well as the ability to finish stock.

As an old farmer said: "We just take it on the chin. There isn't anywhere else to take it."

Schmallenberg is spread by a midge and so, however vigilant farmers are in terms of biosecurity, there is nothing to stop a bug biting livestock.

The farming industry is fortunate to be supported by charities, there to help individuals likely to lose their livelihood and home.

Last month, Prince Charles (through the Prince's Countryside Fund), the Duke of Westminster, and NFU Mutual each pledged £150,000 to help provide a lifeline for many skilled farmers, who simply put in the bull or ram with their stock when it was co-incidentally warm enough for midges carrying the Schmallenberg virus to be active.

There are many questions the industry would like answered by government scientists. Do animals build up immunity once infected? Can bulls and rams infect females? When does the foetus become infected? How long is the virus active in its host? When will a vaccine be available?

There is no compensation. The Government faces serious budget cuts, and so I fear the tone of Mr Gibbens's "low impact" statement.

But this is the third year Schmallenberg has visited our shores and we still have no clear answers.

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