Defra has announced a new strategy to control the BTV8 Bluetongue virus, which is spreading through cattle herds and sheep flocks in north-west Europe.

Industry figures fear that an outbreak in the UK would have a serious effect on the country's meat supply because of the cattle movement restrictions required by the European Commission.

"The first job is to keep the disease out," said NFU livestock board chairman Thomas Binns. "If the disease spreads over wide areas, it is important the economic damage caused by movement restrictions does not become greater than the damage caused by the disease."

Current rules require a 150km surveillance zone to be put in place around each outbreak, and maintained for 120 days from the last reported case. Stock from other areas would not be allowed to travel through these zones, unless moving direct to slaughter.

Livestock specialists are resigned to the arrival of the virus in the UK, but say the rules to contain it may disrupt the red meat supply chain.

"The impact of movement controls could be significant for red meat suppliers unless they are countered by a government and industry agreement to make Great Britain a single control zone," said BMPA director Stuart Roberts.

"BTV8 is described as a mild virus, but mortality and performance reduction problems could affect abattoir intake if reports from France that this year's mortality rates are higher prove correct."

The Defra strategy includes "rigorous" first phase measures to keep the disease out of the UK and contain outbreaks. It also stresses the need for a second phase operation, which will allow the industry to live more easily with the disease should it become widespread.

UK chief vet Debby Reynolds stressed that the risk of BTV8 infection entering Britain remained "low".