Bluetongue: how to spot and report the disease

How to spot bluetongue, what to do if you suspect it and how to prevent it spreading.

Applies to England, Scotland and Wales

Bluetongue affects:

  • sheep
  • cattle
  • other ruminants such as goats
  • camelids such as llamas

It does not affect people or food safety, but outbreaks can result in prolonged animal movement and trade restrictions.

The last outbreak in England, Scotland or Wales was in 2007.

Bluetongue is a notifiable animal disease. If you suspect it you must report it immediately by calling the Defra Rural Services Helpline on 03000 200 301. In Wales, contact 0300 303 8268. In Scotland, contact your local Field Services Office. Failure to do so is an offence.

Current situation

Strains of bluetongue virus are circulating widely throughout Europe including:

  • France (strains BTV4 and BTV8)
  • Belgium (strain BTV 8)

Bluetongue could spread into the UK if infected midges are carried by the wind to England. The exact level of risk depends on the:

  • level of disease in nearby areas of Europe
  • weather

Bluetongue could also spread into the UK if infected animals, or germinal products, are imported from countries where bluetongue is circulating.

Bluetongue has been reported in a number of European countries. See the current outbreak assessments and the map of bluetongue outbreaks across Europe for more detail.

You should discuss the risks of importing stock from BTV affected countries with your vet.

You should also discuss vaccinating your herd or flock with your vet.

How to spot bluetongue

If you keep livestock, you must continue to keep a close watch for, and report, any signs of bluetongue disease in your animals.

In sheep

Signs of bluetongue in sheep include:

  • ulcers in the mouth
  • discharge of mucus and drooling from mouth and nose
  • swelling of the mouth, head and neck and the coronary band (where the skin of the leg meets the horn of the foot)

Other clinical signs include:

  • red skin as a result of blood collecting beneath the surface
  • fever
  • lameness
  • breathing problems

In cattle

Cattle are the main carriers of bluetongue. Signs of the disease include:

  • lethargy
  • crusty erosions around the nostrils and muzzle
  • redness of the mouth, eyes, nose
  • reddening of the skin above the hoof
  • nasal discharge
  • reddening and erosions on the teats
  • elevated temperature
  • milk drop
  • not eating

Most adult animals show only mild clinical signs, or show no signs of disease at all.

In calves

Calves can become infected with bluetongue (BTV-8) before birth, if the mother is infected while pregnant. Signs of infection include:

  • calves born small, weak, deformed or blind
  • death of calves within a few days of birth
  • abortions

Livestock keepers and vets should consider bluetongue as a possible cause for calves showing these signs.

Photos of clinical signs

We’ve published some photos of clinical signs of bluetongue disease on Flickr.

How bluetongue is spread

Midges carry the bluetongue virus. They are infected with the virus when they bite an infected animal. The virus spreads when the infected midge bites an uninfected animal. Once a midge has picked up the BTV virus it will be a carrier for the rest of its life.

The midge season in the UK is usually April to November. The weather, especially temperature and wind direction, affects how quickly, and how far midges can spread the disease.

Practice good hygiene when vaccinating animals

Bluetongue can also be transmitted through dirty needles.

Animal keepers and vets should follow good practice when treating and vaccinating animals at risk of being infected with bluetongue.

Preventing and controlling bluetongue

You can help to prevent the disease by:

  • vaccinating your cattle and sheep against bluetongue, in particular the BTV-4 and BTV-8 strains
  • practising good biosecurity on your premises.

If you import animals, speak to your vet before you decide to import them.

If bluetongue is confirmed APHA will control the outbreak by following the contingency plan for exotic notifiable diseases and the bluetongue control strategy.

If there is an outbreak then APHA will place movement restrictions in zones around the affected premises.

Vaccinating your animals

Vaccination is the best way to protect animals from the Bluetongue virus. You should discuss with your vet whether vaccination would benefit your business.

You need to get a general licence to vaccinate your animals if they’re outside a restricted zone for bluetongue.

It can take up to 6 weeks for your animals to be fully immune as your animals must have 2 injections of the vaccine, 3 weeks apart.

Vets can apply to the Veterinary Medicines Directorate for a Special Import Certificate (SIC).

The certificate allows keepers to import safe and effective bluetongue vaccine directly from the EU to vaccinate their stock.

Importing animals from bluetongue affected countries

You should get advice from your vet about the risks and the health status of animals you want to import, before you import them.

If you import animals you should:

  • make sure that animals have the correct paperwork confirming they’ve been vaccinated against the right strains of bluetongue - this will depend on which country you’re importing from
  • consider what additional guarantees the seller can provide - such as a pre-export test to prove immunity to BTV
  • consider pre-vaccinating your flock or herd against the relevant strains of bluetongue before introducing new animals

Movement restrictions will apply to cattle or sheep imported from countries where bluetongue is known to be circulating. These restrictions will apply until the animals have been tested and confirmed free of the disease.

Animals that test positive for bluetongue will be culled. Any animals which travelled in the same vehicle and are at risk of becoming infected may also be culled. No compensation will be paid for the culled animals.

All other animals on the premises that are at risk of becoming infected will be placed under movement restrictions. These restrictions will apply until it’s confirmed that the disease has not spread. These restrictions may last several weeks.

Bluetongue legislation

The main domestic legislation is the Bluetongue Regulations 2008. Amendments to allow vaccination under licence were made by the Bluetongue (Amendment) Regulations 2012.

Published 26 August 2014
Last updated 11 August 2021 + show all updates
  1. Updated the current situation section and removed out of date content.

  2. Added the details of how to spot bluetongue in calves.

  3. Page updated following a review of content.

  4. Updated the current situation and added the section on importing animals from bluetongue affected countries.

  5. Contact details for reporting a notifiable disease updated.

  6. Updated the current situation to take account of situation in France.

  7. Added a link to photos of clinical signs of bluetongue disease.

  8. Updated link to the latest qualitative risk assessment for bluetongue virus (BTV-8) entry into the UK.

  9. Update on details for movements during an outbreak

  10. Updated following bluetongue virus (BTV-8) risk assessment of entry into the UK in 2016.

  11. AHVLA documents have been re-assigned to the new Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA).

  12. AHVLA documents have been re-assigned to the new Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA).

  13. First published.