With a full-scale foot and mouth disease outbreak under way in Surrey and east Berkshire, the arrival of another scourge for farmers to deal with and be prostrated by, with the news that a single animal infected by bluetongue has been detected in Suffolk (near Ipswich) and will soon be culled, farmers and others could be forgiven for thinking that pestilence on a somewhat Biblical scale was being visited upon us for some reason. Perhaps The Right Reverend Graham Dow, Bishop of Carlisle, who asserted during the summer’s deluges that the floods are not just a result of a lack of respect for the planet, but also a judgment on society’s moral decadence, might care to tell us of what sins farmers are guilty that both foot and mouth and bluetongue should be called down upon them at one and the same moment.

This is simply the last thing that was needed and will have come as a body blow to the already hard-pressed rural community. Many farmers will this morning be thinking of the long-term future of their business and whether they can continue to bear the strain of low-incomes and the constant interruptions to their profitability, such as it is, posed by the sorts of restrictions that are inevitable with the onset of these animal diseases.

Although Bluetongue is not capable of being spread in the same way as Foot and Mouth, being transmitted by the movement of midges of the genus Culicoides (principally Culicoides imicola) or by movements of infected animals if they are subsequently bitten by such midges, DEFRA’s scheme to deal with the disease requires much larger protection and surveillance zones than does F&MD which inevitably impacts on vastly more farmers immediately than is the case with F&MD.

We know which farm is the site of this first outbreak, but you would not be able to glean this information from the DEFRA website which seems to approach the whole business of informing the public about it with as much enthusiasm as MI6 would in naming its agents in Russia or China. With F&MD maps of protection zones and surveillance zones are published promptly. But this morning the DEFRA website has no meaningful information at all on the outbreak’s exact whereabouts. Quite why such secrecy should be thought necessary is difficult to discern: after all, in a free society, it has actually not been difficult for the media to get the detail.

The outbreak site is a Rare Breeds Farm, at Baylham, Suffolk (see map here and website). This is a matter of interest as it lies just off the main A14 road which is the route for traffic from the Hoek van Holland ferry at Harwich to the Midlands. The fear was that the relevant midge might fly across the North Sea, borne on favourable winds, but might it be that the offending midge was, in fact, transported hither in a holidaymaker’s car which then dropped off at the farm to let children sample the delights of what is called ‘a petting farm’ and allowed said midge out to do his business? Equally the midge could have been transported on almost any passing vehicle.

We are only too aware of the gross incompetence and negligence on the government’s part that has led to the current outbreak (for which negligence no one has yet had the moral courage to take responsibility, but then moral courage is in short supply theses days). Are the Government afraid that we may start asking awkward questions about this outbreak of bluetongue and whether it might have been brought about because DEFRA took inadequate precautions at Harwich? Have there been any imports of ruminants, including sheep, cattle, deer, camelids and goats through Harwich within the relevant timescale? If so, we shall want to know if precautions could have been taken at the port and what such precautions are and whose job it was to deal with them.

Meanwhile my thoughts and heart go out to the owners of Baylham Farm whose mission to nurture Rare Breeds is one of which I entirely approve and support. Baylham has some interesting ones such as magnificent White Park Cattle, Shetland Cattle, Old Gloucesters, Castlemilk Moorrit and Balwen Sheep, Ixworth Chickens, New Zealand Kune Kune and Berkshire pigs, to name but a few. This makes the outbreak all the more tragic that part of our valuable heritage and animal gene bank should thus be put at risk. Now their fine efforts may be set at naught: how utterly dispiriting for them. Still, who could remain unmoved by their dignity and strength which is amply demonstrated by their generous and warm-hearted press release (here)?

The lack of a really decent winter for many years now may have brought other problems in its wake. A good cold snap may carry off some valuable bits of wildlife and cost in energy terms but the upside is a culling of troublesome pests that cannot be achieved in any other way. Perhaps a winter of 1962-63 proportions might bring some benefits in its wake and is what we need now to see off these midges.

UPDATE: I would also draw attention to the excellent Mary Critchley’s thought-provoking and highly informative site on F&MD and Bluetongue which presents a refreshingly dissentient take on the matters in hand at http://www.warmwell.com/

Further: Mary Critchley tells me that “The media have got it wrong about the midge. They are all saying it’s Culicoides imicola but ProMed backs up what I was told yesterday that it is more likely to be Culicoides obsoletus and Culicoides pulicaris.” I stand chided for my error and am grateful for the helpful correction which reminds us of the complexity of the subject and the folly of not applying enough funding for research and for maintaining the facilities dedicated to that research.