The baby lamb, but hours old, struggles to stand on its four spindly legs.
It wobbles. It staggers. It falls.
The lamb’s owner reaches down, snatches it up with both hands and sets it upright on the muddy ground.
“Watch,” Rob Cordery-Cotter says as he points to the video he shot during a two-week research trip to England this spring, “it’s going to fall again.”
Sure enough, the woolly mammal again loses its fight for balance and slumps helplessly, legs flailing, at the feet of its owner.
“This lamb was born, but it’s going to be a loss for the farmer,” Cordery-Cotter says. “This is a dead lamb walking.”
It’s not the only one. Since 2011, Schmallenberg Virus (SBV), a novel emerging vector-borne disease transmitted by a tiny biting midge, has ravaged cattle, goats and sheep throughout Europe. The disease causes stillbirths, late-term abortions and severe congenital malformations that not only pose a considerable threat to livestock farmers and their rural communities but to global food security.
The epidemiology of SBV is similar to that of Blue Tongue Virus (BTV), one serotype of which found its way into Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin in 2007. The outbreak, which proved fatal for sheep, pronghorn antelope, white-tailed deer and mule deer, highlighted the vulnerability of Wyoming’s robust livestock industry to transboundary animal diseases (TADs).
The consequences of SBV could be greater, warns Cordery-Cotter, an assistant research scientist in the University of Wyoming’s Department of Animal Science.
“If this comes to Wyoming, grown men will weep,” he says. “It could do irreversible damage to the livestock industry in Wyoming. There may not be a sheep industry in Wyoming after an agent like this comes through. It could severely impact the cattle industry here. Once ranchers lose their livelihoods and go out of business, how are you going to replace that?
“I don’t mean to be the harbinger of doom, but I’ve seen this thing,” says Cordery-Cotter. "This is bad. Real bad.”
With his experience as a visiting research scientist at the University of Nottingham School of Veterinary Medicine as a catalyst, Cordery-Cotter is working to spread information about SBV to stock producers, wildlife and field biologists, range specialists, veterinary practitioners and others throughout Wyoming and the Rocky Mountain region.
He hopes to soon teach a class at UW that would continue to raise awareness of potentially deadly TADs that could threaten the Cowboy State’s 1.3 million cattle and nearly 400,000 sheep. Cordery-Cotter’s research project is being funded largely through a grant from UW’s International Programs Office.
“This agent spread throughout Europe before they knew it was even in their midst. They didn’t recognize it. But now we know what it is,” says Cordery-Cotter, who worked in England with Rachael Tarlinton, whom he describes as one of the world’s foremost experts on SBV, and Carolyn Baguley, a veterinarian who shares his research interest in TADs. “I know what this disease looks like and I am more than happy to help spread the word so that if a veterinarian goes out on a farm and sees a case of a deformed lamb or calf they possess an index of suspicion and think, ‘That could be Schmallenberg!’”
“The more eyes we have open to this, the better,” he says. “We can’t slumber through this and simply hope it doesn’t come here.”
The telltale symptoms of SBV include blindness, spinal deformities, fused joints, paralyzed limbs and behavioral abnormalities. There were two other signs in the diseased lamb in Cordery-Cotter’s video: ataxia, or the loss of muscular coordination, and parrot mouth, a pathologic shortening of the lower jaw that interferes with nursing.
“I did the necropsy on that lamb,” he says as the video continues to play on his iPad.
The UW researcher adds, “The potential for this agent, or a similar agent, to enter the United States is always present. It’s a miracle it hasn’t happened yet. If it does, we need to be ready for it.”