Vaccine too late for 2013 lamb virus time bomb
Who would be a sheep farmer in January 2013?
Prices have crashed, the weather is foul, liver fluke is rampant and, to cap it all, sheep producers all across the region are finding that up to a half of their ewes have either slipped their lambs or were never pregnant in the first place.
Schmallenberg is the name on everyone's lips in the sheep-farming community. As feared, the midge-borne infection appears to have spread the length and breadth of the country since it was first identified two years ago. It causes abortions and deformities, and some early lambing flocks are reporting losses of up to 50%.
Robin Head, who farms at Oakford, near Bampton on the Devon/Somerset border, describes the situation as a "Schmallenberg time-bomb".
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"It was brought home to us when we had our ewes scanned and found almost 25% were empty. The scanner wasn't surprised, because every flock that he'd done to that time had between 10% and 60% of their ewes empty, including one which had 700 empty out of 1,200, plus another 100 which subsequently slipped their lambs."
The empty ewes are not the whole story. Robert Hole, who has a flock of Poll Dorsets near Sherborne, found that half of a batch of 130 ewes were not in lamb. But worse was to follow. Of the 65 ewes which did lamb, 35% were lost due to Schmallenberg, as tests for the virus confirmed.
"It's been soul-destroying", he said. "Once you've seen deformities, you know you've got it and it's just horrible. I'm just glad it wasn't the main lambing flock, which lambed in September and were all fine."
There is some good news on the Schmallenberg front. A vaccine has been developed and is now with the Veterinary Medicines Directorate for approval. All being well, it should be available to protect ewes from infection when they go to the tup in the autumn.
But that won't be much of a consolation for farmers facing heavy losses and a possibly harrowing lambing season this spring, with ewes as well as lambs dying. And it really could not have come at a worse time, with lamb prices on the floor and production costs still rising. Although market prices stabilised last week, they are still more than £1 per kilo down on a year ago, meaning that producers are losing £29 on every lamb they send to market, according to the NFU.
A combination of increased imports from Ireland and New Zealand, and export markets depressed by the eurozone crisis and a stronger pound are mainly to blame, according to the industry body, Eblex. J Sainsbury last week responded to pressure from the NFU for a "sustainable" price for lamb by agreeing to pay its 800 producers a minimum of £3.80 per kilo, which is around 45p above the current average.
But while that is certainly an encouraging straw in the wind, it only applies to a tiny fraction of total production, and even then only takes the price back to where it was in September.
What it does signal, however, is that retailers are concerned to maintain their supply base over the medium to long term.
The fall in market prices has not been caused by a massive increase in the sheep breeding flock, either in the UK or overseas.
It is mainly the result of short-term factors. Ironically, if a combination of the weather and Schmallenberg lead to a very poor lambing season, as seems only too likely, lamb could be in seriously short supply, with prices to match, come the autumn.
Anthony Gibson is a freelance writer and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org