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UK officially declared free from bird flu - but lessons must be learned to protect East Anglia’s poultry in future

PUBLISHED: 15:31 13 September 2017 | UPDATED: 16:02 13 September 2017

The scene of a bird flu outbreak at Redgrave in February. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

The scene of a bird flu outbreak at Redgrave in February. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2017

After a damaging series of disease outbreaks, the UK has finally been declared free of bird flu – but government officials have acknowledged lessons need to be learned to protect poultry keepers in future.

The H5N8 strain of avian influenza sparked a series of bird culls and preventative restrictions within East Anglia’s poultry industry last winter, including 23,000 birds killed at a farm in Redgrave, near Diss, in February and a further 55,000 birds culled after the virus was identified at a nearby duck unit.

The country’s most recent case in poultry was confirmed in Norfolk on June 3, when an outbreak hit a small back-yard flock in Diss, while the discovery of an infected mute swan at a wetland reserve in the Norfolk Broads on July 26 proved there was still a risk from wild birds.

But the government’s chief vet has now confirmed the UK has met international requirements to declare itself free from H5N8 avian influenza.

The disease is still circulating in mainland Europe, so there was a renewed call for vigilance on disease prevention and biosecurity measures as the approaching winter brings an increased risk of infection from migrating wild birds.

Defra and the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) have also published a report detailing 13 lessons learned from the cases recorded between December 2016 and June 2017.

It says: “This outbreak is the first since 2007 where the UK government has had to respond to an exotic disease incursion where activity has not been limited to one IP (infected premises) and its associated zones. Other than the cluster of IPs in Lancashire, concerning game birds, there were no identified links between IPs.

“Avian Influenza had been circulating in continental Europe for some time before the disease was confirmed in England in December 2016. Epidemiological investigations have determined that disease was most likely introduced to domesticated flocks in the UK through direct or indirect contact with wild bird populations.

“This outbreak has demonstrated particular challenges because of the geographic variance of IPs, and the different nature of husbandry employed across different IPs.”

READ MORE: Poultry keepers must act now to safeguard against winter bird flu risk

The report says the APHA “managed the outbreak successfully” and the UK implemented a “fast and effective disease control programme”.

But it also lists a series of recommendations on how the outbreak response and communications with other government agencies, local authorities, industry groups and hobby poultry keepers could be improved in future.

A specific area highlighted was a “lack of awareness of, or unwillingness or inability to comply with, avian influenza control measures amongst non-commercial (hobby) flock keepers”.

The report adds: “Many commented that there was little evidence of redress exacted upon those who failed to comply with measures (such as a requirement to house/segregate poultry from wild birds) contained in the Prevention Order. More generally, there was a fear that the non-commercial keeper community were not aware of or practising good routine biosecurity, and had little understanding of the impact that disease in their flock would have on other keepers in potential zones.”

Another recommendation relates to a lack of government knowledge of the “structure and integration” of the game bird industry, including the behaviour of game birds in the wild.

For the full report, click here.

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