Lamb born with five legs and no head - horror virus rattles farming community

A LAMB born with five legs and no head is a gruesome symbol of the horror virus outbreak which has alarmed the hard-working farming community here in East Sussex.

The unpredictable Schmallenberg virus (SBV), named after the German town where it allegedly originated, has created a tough environment for sheep and cattle farmers across Britain, according to the National Farmers Union (NFU).

Abortions, stillbirths and birth defects have affected sheep and cattle caused by the virus said to have blown over the English Channel via infected midges. There is no known vaccine. Adult cattle can also suffer from fever, diarrhoea and a decline in milk yields. 

NFU animal health and welfare adviser Catherine McLaughlin urged farmers to check animals and report problems.

She said: “The full impact of the problem will not be known for some time as it only becomes apparent once livestock are born.”

Sheep farmer Mark Littmoden, of Courthouse Farm near Offham, was lying on a sofa, exhausted and feeling ‘despair’ at the traumatic effect of the virus on his flock - when he spoke to the Sussex Express.  

Lambing season which has just begun is always a busy time. But the small livestock farmer was shocked at the random virus causing the birth of deformed lambs and gruesome carcasses. Six ewes had been lost with nine abnormal lambs from the 130-strong flock to date. 

Mr Littmoden found most of the deformed lambs dead, blocking access to healthier lambs behind, when birthing ewes.

“It’s all part of the virus”, Mr Littmoden said. “With some of them I had to shoot the ewes, I can’t afford caesarian operations.  So I have been shooting ewes as its kinder.”

The worst birth was the lamb with five legs and no head - with ‘something rotten behind’.

“I had to shoot the ewe”, he said.

The horror birth spree on his farm has seen triplet lambs born  which ‘didn’t look right’. Others had deformed heads, jaws, and legs fused together as though glue was poured over them.  Ewes were also getting fever. Normal fahrenheit readings are 35.2 but he was measuring 40 degrees in some of the flock.

He has found lambs born which look healthy but are an abnormal small size. Bottle feeding 18 orphaned lambs four times per day, for one-and-a-half hours, was taking up the farmer’s time. One bottle fed lamb had half a tongue.

“I had to dispatch that one.”

Mr Littmoden believed a crisis had loomed on the horizon for the farming community.

Many have not recovered financially from the foot-and-mouth and bluetongue crises, when they had to get loans or ‘sold the family silver’, he said.

He said: “The majority of farmers haven’t lambed yet so there is far worse to come. I am a very experienced stockman and we don’t rear animals to see this happen.

“It is a way of life for me, it is my hobby as well as my job.

“My biggest fear is the human cost. A lot of farmers are solitary people. There are going to be people stuck on their farms.

“I experienced the loss of two friends from suicide during the foot-and-mouth crisis and it worries me. I hope that farming charities are getting experience of the problem.”

He added: “I shall be glad to see the back of this lambing season. Everybody needs to be honest and say they have got a problem. So we can collate the information. 

“I think one or two are not saying anything which is a folly. As a community we have got to pull together.”

At Hailsham Cattle Market last week it was too early to speak of the effect of the virus, said staff member Roger Cowsill.

He said: “At the moment we are still selling last year’s lambs. But some of the farmers have said they have been affected.”