John Craven: UK flocks badly hit by costly bird flu outbreak

The Countryfile presenter on the costly effects of the largest ever outbreak of bird flu in the UK

Scientist in mask wearing gloves holding chicken.
Published: March 26th, 2022 at 12:12 pm
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Another devastating virus first detected in China has been sweeping through the UK. This one is H5N1, better known as bird flu and in no way connected with Covid 19. Brought to these shores last autumn by migrating geese, it passed to flocks of domestic hens and chickens resulting in upwards of 2.3 million birds being culled in recent months.

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But now, as the geese begin to leave and fly north to their breeding grounds, the risk of further outbreaks, on top of the record number of more than 80 already recorded across the UK, should be slowly diminishing.

Mercifully, H5N1 rarely affects humans (one elderly Devon man who kept 20 pet Muscovy ducks inside his house did become ill) and properly cooked poultry meat and eggs are safe to eat. But it spreads like wildfire when it crosses to poultry flocks. Unlike Covid 19 it is not airborne; instead, it transmits from bird to bird through direct contact or through contaminated faeces, feed and water.

That is why, at the end of November last year, the order went out to every bird owner in the country, whether they had pets, commercial flocks or just a few hens in their backyard, to keep them indoors, out of contact with wild birds. Extra, very strict biosecurity measures costing many millions were enforced, with compensation offered for birds culled on infected premises but not for consequential losses.

So what does this mean to farmers supplying the free- range end of the market, whose livelihoods depend on flocks being allowed outdoors? When imposing the restrictions, DEFRA ruled that birds could still be classed as free-range if they were kept indoors for not more than 12 weeks for meat and 16 weeks for eggs. As I write, there is no sign of the mandatory housing order being lifted, but that should not create any great problems for the free-range meat sector as most birds are slaughtered at around eight weeks.

It could be disastrous, however, for free-range egg sales, which make up 55% of the egg market.

DEFRA says it is working with the egg industry to prepare for a change in marketing, from free-range to barn eggs, should the mandatory order still be in place after 16 weeks (towards the end of March). Around 30 million laying hens would be involved, making the cost of downgrading huge.

Deaths in the wild

H5N1 also takes it toll among wild geese. A conservation success story on the English/ Scottish border involving barnacle geese had seen numbers grow around the Solway Firth, from a few hundred in the 1940s to more than 30,000. Over the past winter, 4,000 have been wiped out by the virus. Anyone who finds a dead swan, goose, duck, gull or bird of prey should not touch it but report the finding to the DEFRA helpline: 03459 335577.

Dreadful, widespread diseases among livestock are nothing new – think of BSE, foot and mouth and the ever-present bovine TB – but the impact of bird flu has been getting worse. It has been around for some years and, for obvious reasons, it has not been as widely reported as Covid 19, but the number of current outbreaks is three times more than last year.

All hopes are now pinned on geese taking H5N1 with them as they migrate north – but the downside, infection-wise, is they will be back again in autumn.

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