Farmers around Nidderdale face an uncertain year as lambing season gets underway amid a disease outbreak across the UK.
The Schmallenberg virus has already taken a heavy toll on some flocks near Pateley Bridge and Nidderdale, with one farmer losing of nearly half his lambs.
Michael Swales farms at Winksley, between Ripon and Pateley Bridge. He began lambing in January and saw his flock hit hard by the disease which causes abortions in pregnant ewes and deformities in new-born lambs. Mr Swales said he lost 15 adult ewes out of a flock of 200, as well as 90 lambs – while only around 100 lambs survived.
“I don’t know exactly how many were affected because I got sick of looking at them and thinking about it,” he said.
One day Mr Swales saw 10 lambs born out of which seven died, while another day the farm had eight dead lambs born, but not one live birth.
The disease takes a heavy emotional toll on the farmers who have to deal with severly deformed lambs and distressed sheep, he added.
“You get to the point of not wanting to go to the sheep because you don’t know what you will find. It’s grim.
“The vet said it doesn’t affect humans, but I know it does.
“It’s bad enough when the lambs are born dead, but when they are alive and you have to kill them – that’s worse.”
Mr Swales spoke of trying to straighten lambs’ deformed limbs to get them out of the ewe. He said when the legs break, the skin seems to break as well and the leg will come off.
“The poor little sods are alive, but you have to kill them,” he added.
As well as deformed legs, his Schmallenberg affected lambs have had under-developped jaws.
“Nine out of ten of them have had under-shot bottom jaws so they wouldn’t be able to suckle of they had lived,” Mr Swales said.
The farm faces losses of up to £9000 from the early lambs, which would have been sold through Pateley Bridge Auction Mart.
“Last year my top price was £114 per lamb, this year I’d expect it to be around £100. I’ve got 90 dead lambs I should have been selling for that price, so it will make a big impact on my income.”
The disease is spread by midges, and the NFU’s Yorkshire County Advisor Rob Lea said evidence shows early lambing flocks have been hit the hardest. Adult animals can survive the virus in a matter of days, but if ewes are infected during early pregnancy the disease can have a devastating affect on the unborn lamb.
While the early lambing flocks are tupped during warmer weather while the midges are still active, the later lambing ewes will not be pregnant until later in the autumn when the midges are no longer widespread.
Schmallenberg was first detected in the UK in early 2012, but the first cases were not seen in the North until October 2012 making this the first lambing season farmers in the Dales have faced the disease.
Farmers often do not know how badly their flocks will be affected until lambing season begins in earnest, Mr Lea added, and a potential vaccine that has recently been registered will not available until autumn at the earliest.
“Cattle can be affected by Schmallenberg as well, but we will not see the extent of that until the autumn.”