Welsh researchers tackle disease that attacks sheep

Fighting to save Welsh sheep flocks Credit: ITV News Wales

University researchers in Wales are leading the hunt to find a way of stopping the spread of Schmallenberg Disease. The virus is spread by midges, and causes miscarriages and birth defects in sheep.

Researchers are looking at how a fungus can be used to kill the midges to stop the spread of the disease. It's hoped a natural solution to the problem will reduce the need for pesticides and vaccinations.

IMPACT project researchers, based in Aberystwyth and Swansea, believe that their latest work on midge control can help reduce numbers of the tiny biting insects, and the chance of their spreading diseases.

They are investigating new natural ways of controlling the tiny pests - which were the cause of blue tongue disease in a small number of areas in England.

The project - Integrated Management of forest Pests Addressing Climate Trends - is co-funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) through the Ireland Wales Programme (INTERREG IVA), COFORD and Forestry Commission Wales.

IMPACT project partner Swansea University has just published its latest findings on work which looks at using a fungus - Metarhizium anisopliae - to control biting midges, populations of which could increase with climate change.

Vaccines for sheep and cattle are already being considered as an answer to the new disease, but could take years to develop.

"New ways of controlling the midge population, which is believed to carry the virus between animals, could significantly reduce the risk," said Professor Tariq Butt, whose work at Swansea is an important part of the IMPACT project.

"Current control measures rely on synthetic pesticides, which pose a risk to humans and the environment, whereas natural alternatives do not. With climate change projecting warmer, wetter weather leading to larger midge populations, these could prove a very useful alternative in reducing their numbers."

Work in the laboratories at Swansea has now shown that the V275 strain of the fungus has potential for use in control programmes as it also kills the adult midge, with some applications in the laboratory having a 100 per cent success rate within five days.