Despite the colder weather, lambing season is just beginning. This usually brings a smile to my face – new life skipping around – but this year we are anxiously holding our breath.
Dorset, along with several other counties, was affected last year by a new virus that causes birth defects, stillbirth and abortion in sheep, cattle and goats – though not, thank goodness, humans.
The Schmallenberg virus is named after the German village where it was first identified. It is spread by midges which, because of the mild weather (difficult to believe now, but it was), have been around pretty much all year. It is most damaging if caught in early pregnancy – so for the sheep flocks currently lambing that means August/ September time when midges were out in force.
Some flocks took a big hit last year with lots of either dead or deformed lambs being born. Some lambs were so deformed, with twisted legs or spines or domed heads caused by fluid-filled brains, that they couldn’t come out the natural way through the birth canal, but had to be delivered by the side-door, that is by a caesarian section. These lambs weren’t going to live whichever way they came out, but we had to deliver them to save their mothers.
It is all very costly for the farmers – financially and emotionally – especially coming on top of the wettest summer in a century and terrible harvests.
We were lucky enough to escape it on our farm last year, but when one of the early calves born in 2012 was deformed the prospect hung over us… And so far there is no vaccine.
This year, there are reports already of large numbers of empty animals, which is to say ewes who would normally be pregnant at this time of year, but aren’t. The stress of the summer weather and poor quality forage that went along with all that rain could be to blame, but evidence so far this year suggests Schmallenberg has spread further.
I have yet to test our herd as the calves have only just been weaned from their mums. It’s one of the next management jobs though – I will keep you posted.
For more information about the Schmallenberg virus, see the official DEFRA website http://www.defra.gov.uk/animal-diseases/a-z/schmallenberg-virus/