Sentinel herds of large ruminants were established at five centres in Yunnan Province, Peoples Republic of China, between 1995 and 1997. The application of a sensitive antigen capture ELISA to facilitate virus isolation procedures led to the isolation of 108 strains of bluetongue (BLU) virus. Serotypes isolated included types 1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 11, 12, 15, 16, 21 and 23. Virus transmission occurred over a period of 1–3 months at each of the four positive sites, giving an overall BLU virus transmission period for the province of 5 months, from early June to early November. The greatest level of transmission took place in July and August. The duration of viraemia in individual animals varied from 1 to 7 weeks, with a mean calculated for each serotype between 6 and 20 days. The study represents the first detailed investigation of the epidemiology of BLU in China utilizing sentinel herds.