Poultry farmers call for birds to be kept inside to combat bird flu

Poultry farmers have called for a UK-wide housing order to be brought in as soon as possible, after an upsurge in bird flu outbreaks in the past month.

A compulsory housing order for all poultry and captive birds in Norfolk, Suffolk and parts of Essex came into force on Wednesday. It applies to everyone who keeps birds – both commercial flock keepers and non-commercial premises such as back yards, hobby flocks or pets.

It comes after a significant increase in bird flu cases in the east of England region, with 27 outbreaks in the past month alone across the three counties. Christmas goose producers are among those to have been badly affected.

The UK’s chief vet, Christine Middlemiss, said she expected to see the number of bird flu cases on farms to continue to rise over the coming months as migratory birds return to the UK.

In the past month there have also been outbreaks in Somerset, Oxford, Staffordshire, North Yorkshire, Lancashire, Devon and Cheshire.

In November last year, the chief veterinary officers for Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland agreed to bring in a compulsory housing order across the UK. This was only lifted by the chief vets from the four devolved nations in May this year.

Farming groups are calling on for the new regional compulsory housing order to be extended across the whole of the UK as soon as possible.

“The sheer persistence of avian influenza over the past year, coupled with soaring energy and feed costs, has put the whole British poultry sector under huge emotional and financial pressure. Given the recent rise in avian influenza cases and the distress they cause for farming families, the implementation of housing measures in the east of England is a necessary step.

“The number one priority for poultry farmers has always been the health and welfare of their flock … That is why the National Farmers Union is now urging the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to consider expanding the regional housing measures on a national basis to reflect any increase in the levels of risk across the country,” said NFU poultry board chair James Mottershead.

The British Poultry Council said a compulsory housing order for all farmed birds was necessary “as soon as possible to prioritise the wellbeing of our farmers, the viability of their businesses and the safety of all birds”.

UK egg producers also said they would like to see the initial compulsory housing order extended across the UK.

Free-range egg producers said their support was conditional on the UK aligning with EU proposals to allow eggs to continue to be labelled as “free range”, even if the birds are not allowed outside.

The European Commission has put forward plans for scrapping the time limit on the marketing of eggs as free range if chickens are forced to be housed to reduce the risk of outbreaks of bird flu.

Over the last year, the UK has faced its largest ever outbreak of bird flu with more than 160 cases confirmed since late October 2021.

We’ve been seeing unprecedented levels of the virus around the UK this year, and usually numbers increase as winter approaches, so the situation could get even worse,” said Prof Wendy Barclay, head of the department of infectious disease at Imperial College London.

“The outbreak is being closely monitored by the Animal and Plant Health Agency and Defra, but it is clear that farmed birds that are exposed to wild birds are vulnerable,” she added.

Defra said any decision on when to reintroduce national housing measures would be based on the latest scientific and ornithological evidence and veterinary advice.

The UK Health Security Agency continue to advise the risk to public health from the virus is very low and the Food Standards Agency advice remains unchanged, that avian influenzas pose a very low food safety risk for UK consumers. Properly cooked poultry and poultry products, including eggs, are safe to eat.

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