Concern has been expressed that measures in place to prevent or deal with an outbreak of Bluetongue disease in Ireland are inadequate. This view is held by local Tramore Councillor, Joe Conway, who raised some searching questions for the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the week past.

“As the weather begins to warm up”, Councillor Conway said, “the risk of infection is increased. And with 149 confirmed premises affected by BTV-8 (Bluetongue virus – serotype 8) in England and Wales to date, since the first case of BTV-8 was confirmed there in September 2007, it is more likely that the south-east of Ireland could fall victim to wind vectors.

“And while the Department of Agriculture confirms that its National Bluetongue Contingency Plan continues to evolve, it fudges the issue about biosecurity measures at points of entry to the country. They have measures against susceptible animals, but no biosecurity at all in other susceptible areas – such as plants, fertilisers, horse-boxes or manures.”

Bluetongue disease or catarrhal fever is a non-contagious, insect-borne viral disease of ruminants, mainly sheep and less frequently of cattle, goats, buffalo, deer, dromedaries and antelope. It is caused by the Bluetongue virus and is transmitted by biting midges but is not transferred to humans. The culicoides midge routinely breeds in manure-bearing matter.

Bluetongue was first described in South Africa and BTV-8 was first found in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Western Germany and in parts of North Eastern France in Summer/Autumn 2006. In 2007, Northern Europe experienced a dramatic increase of new cases in all existing infected areas, and cases numbered into the many tens of thousands as disease steadily spreads across Europe, even to Scandinavia.

Affected countries witnessed increased mortality rates in animals and production losses, which caused severe economic hardship for the farming industry. Affected countries began vaccination programmes in 2008, but as expected, disease has now re-emerged.

From initial studies it can be roughly estimated that a midge can travel up to 1.5 – 2 km a day in a local area. However, if caught in suitable meteorological conditions midges can be carried much farther distances, especially over water masses i.e. more than 200 km. All of these details are an approximation and vary according to local environmental, topographical and meteorological conditions, but midges could conceivably carry by wind vector to the south-east of Ireland.

“The IFA are quite concerned about Bluetongue”, stated Cllr Conway, who will be seeking a farmer vote in his quest for a County Council seat on June 5. “In discussions I had with their headquarters last week, they indicated to me their unease at the lack of biosecurity measures at Rosslare, through which significant amounts of manure-bearing matter are imported without any check. The IFA spokesman confirmed to me that a vaccination programme after an outbreak would cost farmers anything between €12m – €50m, but the product-loss cost afterwards would be much more significant.

“It is very short-sighted that the Department has no adequate checks on this potential disaster – the watchword seems to be to keep the head down and hope for the best. It appears that financial exigency there is leading to that Department playing Russian Roulette with farm incomes”, the Tramore Councillor concluded.