The UK livestock industry could well see the return of bluetongue later this year, with late summer the most likely time of incursion, according to the Animal and Plant Health Protection Agency (APHA).
With the disease currently present across much of central France, farmers are being urged to monitor their stock carefully and report any clinical signs of disease immediately.
They are also being asked to consider vaccination to protect their stock against the virus.
The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) has published its latest risk assessment, revealing the UK is at risk of an outbreak during the spring or summer months.
It concluded, albeit with a ’high level of uncertainty’, the risk of incursion in the coming months to be:
This relies on successful re-emergence and spread in France in 2016 and is highly dependent on the ability of the French authorities to control disease over the low vector activity period.
The modelling work does however suggest that only in a hot year (for example, as seen in 2006) will an incursion lead to an outbreak as early as May, and that a June date is more likely the earliest date in an average year.
The BTV8 strain of bluetongue re-emerged in Central France in the autumn, after being undetected in mainland EU for at least five years.
To date, France has reported 173 outbreaks, concentrated mainly in the centre of the country and mainly affecting cattle, albeit with mild or no clinical signs and very low prevalence.
Restriction zones are in place in France to control the spread of the disease.
If Bluetongue was found to be circulating in the UK, similar measures such as movement restrictions would be put in place, in line with the National Control Strategy across the Devolved Administrations.
Government Deputy Chief Vet Simon Hall said: “We have robust disease surveillance procedures in place and are working closely with the livestock industry to carefully monitor the situation in France where Bluetongue disease control measures are in place.
“The risk of incursion from infected midges is difficult to predict at this stage because it is highly dependent on the level of disease on the continent, the proximity to the UK and the weather."
“Animal keepers should remain vigilant for any signs of disease and report any suspicions to their vet and the Animal and Plant Health Agency immediately.
He added: "Livestock keepers should also consider with their vet if vaccination is an option which would benefit their business.”
There is no vaccine currently available to farmers in the UK but the NFU, Defra and industry are working with vaccine manufacturers to address this.
NFU chief adviser on animal health and welfare, Catherine McLaughlin said: “We are taking the threat of bluetongue seriously and urge all ruminant keepers to maintain vigilance for signs of disease.
"Vaccine is effective and we recommend farmers have a conversation with their veterinary surgeon to inform their decision based on their business risk.”
"It is clear that we need a vaccine readily available for UK farmers to use before the spring and the onset of warmer, more conducive weather.”
"It can take two to three months for vaccine stocks to be made if there is a seed vaccine, if there isn’t this process can take around six months.
British Veterinary Association senior vice president Professor John Blackwell said: “We strongly encourage all farmers to closely monitor their stock for Bluetongue symptoms - particularly sheep that are most susceptible to the disease - including eye and nasal discharge, drooling, swelling around the head or mouth, lethargy and lameness.
"We’d recommend farmers speak to their local vet about the benefits of vaccination, given their locality and individual circumstances, and especially if farmers have any concerns about their livestock.”
Professor Peter Mertens of The Pirbright Institute, the centre for bluetongue epidemiology research in Europe, said he was confident diagnostic tests developed at Pirbright were ’fast and reliable’.
He said: "It would appear that the virus circulating now is almost identical to the virus outbreak in 2007 therefore we know exactly what to expect and are well prepared.”