Suffolk poultry farmers are divided about letting their livestock out as a national bird flu housing order is lifted.

The news has been welcomed by some - but others fear the risk is still too high.

Egg producer Alaistaire Brice, of Havensfield Happy Hens at Hoxne, near Eye, said he would continue to house his 150,000 laying hens in spite of the lifting of restrictions. He described the decision in relation to East Anglia as "barmy".

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But Mark Gorton, managing director of Traditional Norfolk Poultry (TNP), welcomed the news and will be letting his birds out.

The government says poultry and other captive birds can be kept outside again from April 18 - except in disease zones.

It means eggs laid by hens with access to outside ranges can once again be labelled as free range.

A national order was imposed on November 7 as outbreaks of the disease rocketed. 

East Anglia became a hotbed for the disease in the autumn of last year leading to a regional lockdown across Suffolk, Norfolk and parts of Essex - and some fear the risks are still uncomfortably high despite the seasonal nature of the disease.

Prior to the latest outbreak, Mr Brice's birds were free range - but he feels that the risk from wild birds and other factors is still too high.

He said he would rather explain the situation to his customers and stick with the barn egg status he was obliged to adopt after the hens were housed.

Mr Gorton welcomed the lifting of restrictions - but was cautious. He rears hundreds of thousands of chickens and turkeys across East Anglia.

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"It's great news but with a certain amount of trepidation. It's come as a welcome surprise and something we weren't expecting yet."

As the weather improves, it would be a welcome development for his birds, he said.

"We really do need to let these birds outside," he said. But producers would not be letting their guards down and remained on high alert, he said. "We still have to be extremely careful."

But Mr Brice believes that it is too soon to lift the bird lockdown in East Anglia - because of the high incidence of disease during the outbreak.

"I can understand it from other parts of the country but I can't understand it for East Anglia - not given the levels of infections we have had in this region.

"The only reason we have had no outbreaks in commercially farmed poultry is because we have not our poultry locked in."

He felt as soon as birds were out again the likelihood was the virus would resurface.

"I personally accept if you are in somewhere like Kent or Sussex there may not be a need to keep your birds in now," he said. 

But East Anglia had been a hotbed for the disease, he said. "It's like playing Russian Roulette. You can't do it," he said. "It's just barmy to me at the moment."

Laying hens have a two-year life cycle, compared to about two months for a chicken reared for eating - which meant his industry was more exposed, he said.

"It just seems a very strange decision for our area," he added. "I agree with the rest of the country but for East Anglia particularly in a very vulnerable high density area you are potentially letting a hand grenade off."

There was still a shortage of eggs, he pointed out, and producers needed to keep risks to a minimum.

Turkey farmer Chris Mobbs of Cratfield, near Halesworth, has already cut down on his order of day-old poults (turkey chicks) this year. He has ordered 3,000 rather 3,500 and they are due to arrive on farm in June. 

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Other small-scale turkey farmers he knows have decided to quit this year as a result of bird flu. However, he will keep going - but is prepared to bring them inside later in the year if the disease resurfaces as many anticipate.

Dr Christine Middlemiss, the UK's chief veterinary officer, said the risk of bird flu infection has reduced following restrictive measures throughout the winter, although bird keepers are being encouraged to observe "stringent standards of biosecurity".

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