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Sussex farms hit by deadly virus
Farmers across Sussex are bracing themselves for the impact of a new deadly livestock virus sweeping across the county.
Thousands of lambs and calves could be destroyed over the next few months, putting the future of many farms at risk.
Sussex has been the worst hit area in the country by the Schmallenberg virus, with 18 sheep farms and one cattle farm affected.
Across the country there had been 74 cases reported last night.
However, the number is expected to rise rapidly as the lambing season starts in earnest.
Government experts stress they do not believe the virus will affect humans or enter the food chain but say they cannot rule either out because the virus has only recently been discovered.
Farmers are concerned that consumers could turn away from lamb because they are worried it is unsafe.
Working farms that also take visits from the public are also worried people will stay away.
The Schmallenberg virus is thought to be spread by midges, mosquitoes and ticks and causes birth defects, stillbirths and miscarriages.
However, farmers do not know if their animals have been affected until they give birth.
They are now facing an anxious wait to discover whether their flocks and herds have been infected.
Dozens of lambs at farms around the county have already been born with deformities and have either been destroyed or have died within minutes of being born.
The virus first emerged in the Netherlands and Germany last year.
Farmers say it is the uncertainty that is causing the most worry.
Sue Clay works under contract at farms in Sussex during the lambing season.
She has recently been working at a farm in East Sussex which has lost 40 of the 400 lambs born so far this year.
She said: “It has all been such a shock and has been a very difficult time.
“At first a couple of lambs were born with deformities and we thought that was just a bit of bad luck but then more and more were being affected."
She added: “Farmers were only just beginning to get back on their feet again after the foot and mouth outbreak and then something like this comes along.
“I’m about to start work at another farm next week and I’m dreading what might happen."
Experts believe up to 20% of a herd or flock could be affected at a time.
So far 14 sheep farms in East Sussex and four in West Sussex have been affected.
Trevor Passmore, of Church Farm in Coombes, near Lancing, is expecting around 1,200 lambs to be born this year but has no idea at the moment whether his flock is carrying the virus.
He said: “It is just a matter of having to wait and see and that is very worrying. This could be devastating."
Cattle farmer Michael Fordham, from Uckfield, has just retired from the local committee of the National Farmers’ Union.
He said it was believed midges had brought the infection over last autumn and it was only now as sheep began to give birth that the impact was being felt.
He said cows had a longer gestation period than sheep so it would be another few weeks before farmers would know if they were affected.
He said: “We’re definitely worried, particularly as don’t know an awful lot about this virus.
"We are just watching and waiting to see how things develop.”
A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “As farmers, vets, and governments continue to gather information about the progress and effects of this disease, it's vital that farmers continue to report any suspicions they have as soon as possible.
"The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control says it is unlikely Schmallenberg virus would cause disease in humans."
A spokesman for the Food Standards Agency said people should still eat lamb and any risk to consumers through the food chain is likely to be low.