Livestock farmers, particularly in southern England, have been warned to brace themselves for the return of bluetongue this year and to give serious thought to vaccinating their stock.
The BTV8 strain of the disease, which spread across much of northern Europe including parts of England in 2007, was discovered again in France in September.
With cases continuing to be reported over the Christmas period, infection had been detected at 143 farms across a large area of central France by the end of December. Restriction zones are in place and vaccination is being carried out, with more than a million vaccine doses made available.
NFU livestock chairman Charles Sercombe said Defra had warned the union there was a strong possibility the midge-borne virus could once again make its way across the Channel later this year.
“We are talking at length with Defra and APHA at the moment about the possibility of bluetongue being an issue later this year,” he told the NFU council on Tuesday.
“There is quite strong evidence with the outbreak in France and the potential weather situation that it could move to the southern parts of the UK in 2016, not dissimilar to the way it moved into East Anglia in 2007.”
He urged farmers to consider vaccinating their stock in the early part of this year to give some proration.
He said: “We are working behind the scenes to encourage vaccine production to make it available for members to use.
“We have tried make sure it is available in time for farmers to get the first vaccination in before the cattle are turned out in the spring.
“People in those areas will have to make their own business decisions but it is incumbent on us to make sure the vaccine is available. Farmers will have to pay but we want members to have a choice.”
A Defra spokesperson said: “We have robust disease surveillance procedures in place and are working closely with the livestock industry to carefully monitor the situation in Central France where disease control measures are in place.
“Animal keepers should also remain vigilant for any signs of Bluetongue disease and report any suspicions to their vet immediately.
“Vaccination against the disease is also effective and available to industry as a voluntary, protective measure.”
The situation in France has confirmed how difficult the disease is to spot.
See Defra's guidance here on how to spot bluetongue
And here is Defra's bluetongue control strategy outlining the policy that will be put in place in the event of an outbreak.