New measures begin to help curb British bird flu cases in poultry

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Order made by Defra for the first time in four years, as thousands of birds have been culled in Great Britain

A chicken in the Peak District
Farmers have had nearly two weeks to prepare for the new restrictions. Photograph: Deborah Vernon/Alamy Stock Photo
Farmers have had nearly two weeks to prepare for the new restrictions. Photograph: Deborah Vernon/Alamy Stock Photo
Sun 13 Dec 2020 19.06 EST

Millions of free-range hens and other birds must be kept indoors from Monday under a national government crackdown to try to curtail the spread of a virulent strain of avian flu sweeping across Great Britain.

Keepers have had 11 days to prepare for the strict new lockdown-style measures, including taking steps to safeguard animal welfare, consult their vet and where necessary erect additional housing or self-contained netted areas.

The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) announced earlier this month that the chief vets of England, Scotland and Wales had agreed the new legal requirement for all owners to bring their flocks indoors, to keep them separate from potentially infectious wild birds.

It applies not only to large commercial poultry farms but also smaller farmers with hens in coops or garden pens. Lockdown and the shift towards ‘self-sufficiency’ has triggered a huge surge in interest by individuals in keeping birds and there is concern that many may have scant regard or understanding of the importance of biosecurity measures.

The restrictions will apply to chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese, pigeon (bred for meat), partridge, quail, guinea fowl and pheasants. No end date for the measures has yet been given, and Defra said they would be kept under “regular review”.

Eggs can continue to be marketed and labelled as “free-range” for 16 weeks from today, but if restrictions last longer they must be downgraded to “barn produced” using stickers on packaging. Similarly, poultry meat can be labelled free-range for 12 weeks. To be defined as free range in the UK, a chicken must normally be at least 56 days old before slaughter and have had access to outside space for at least half that time.

Premium free-range eggs currently represent 56% of UK retail egg sales – the highest proportion of any European country – whereas just 2% of eggs are from the barn system.

It is the first time in four years that a so-called housing order has been imposed on the UK poultry sector due to a significant outbreak of bird flu, when measures were put in place from December 2016 to May 2017.

Thousands of turkeys have been culled after outbreaks in North Yorkshire, Cheshire and Norfolk, while cases were confirmed this week in Warwickshire and Worcestershire after a number of dead swans were found.

Among commercial producers preparing for the new restrictions is Alastaire Brice, who runs Havensfield Happy Hens – currently with 160,000 laying hens in 22 flocks across farms in Norfolk and Suffolk.

The current lockdown comes as no surprise, Brice told the East Anglian Daily Times: “It’s expected, bearing in mind the sporadic cases that have been going on up and down the country. Last year, they had a reprieve when bird flu didn’t arrive in the country but this year it started with a bang”. It can take longer to get older flocks to adjust to coming indoors, he explained, with hens vulnerable to anxiety or aggression.

Richard Griffiths, chief executive of the British Poultry Council, said: “While contingency plans are in place and the spread of bird flu is being effectively monitored, the combination of avian influenza, the coronavirus pandemic, and a tight, non-negotiable Brexit deadline, has proven yet again the vulnerability of Britain’s food security.”