Joy for free-range farms as poultry released from bird flu lockdown
- Credit: Sally Brightwell
While we take our long-awaited first steps out of Covid-19 restrictions, another lockdown is ending on East Anglia's farms - as free-range poultry is released from 16 weeks of bird flu confinement.
All of the region's free-range and back-yard poultry flocks were ordered to be kept indoors since December 14 under strict rules to prevent the spread of avian influenza.
The disease sparked some damaging outbreaks and large-scale culls in the region's poultry industry around the end of the year but, following successful containment measures, chief vets lifted the compulsory housing order from April 1.
Free-range farmers in Norfolk and Suffolk said they were relieved their birds could roam free outdoors again. But, as with coronavirus, precautions are still in place while the disease threat remains.
Outbreaks during the last week in Staffordshire and Cheshire proved the risk of avian influenza has not receded completely, so enhanced biosecurity requirements brought in as part of the nationwide Avian Influenza Protection Zone (AIPZ) in November will remain in place.
Mark Gorton is managing director of Traditional Norfolk Poultry (TNP), based at Shropham, near Attleborough, a specialist free-range producer supplied by 65 farms across Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. He is also a member of the National Farmers' Union poultry board.
"Much the same as we have had our lockdown because there is a virus out there and we have been told to stay inside to stay safe, we have done the same for the chickens," he said.
"Our lockdown is easing now, and the chickens' lockdown is easing. But we are still under precautions and that has been hammered home by the two avian influenza cases this week in other parts of the country. Like coronavirus, the disease is still there and we cannot relax, but this is our roadmap to freedom."
Mr Gorton said the lockdown has cost his business more in feed and bedding, but it would not have been detrimental to the health and welfare of the birds.
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"Throughout that winter period, with the inclement weather, short days and snow, most of the birds would decide to stay inside anyway - much the same as we would," he said.
"There is lots of space in the buildings and we provided them with more environmental enrichment, like perches and straw bales to sit on and things to peck at.
"There has been no impact to the health and wellbeing of the birds, but it is fair to say the chicken we grow is very active and it is in their instinct to go outside. A bit like us, they have been sitting there looking out the windows saying: 'That looks nice'."
Alaistaire Brice, of Havensfield Happy Hens based at Hoxne, near Eye, said his challenge would be "re-educating" his flocks after an extended period indoors.
"It could take weeks for them to reacclimatise," he said. "Chickens don't have a great memory, so it is a whole new environment.
"And we have got lots of young flocks that have never experienced being outdoors. These birds will take a little longer to adjust."
Mr Brice said the enforced housing order had actually brought some benefits for egg production.
"The hens have had the ideal situation where they have had a controlled environment and everything is regulated," he said. "Once you control the birds' environment you can control their intake and remove the variables of diseases they can pick up on the range.
"It has actually been a more efficient way of producing eggs, and the quality of our eggs has never been better, but we have had to work really hard to keep the birds enriched and healthy, knowing that they can go back outside on April 1.
"Now it is all about re-educating them again. Some flocks will be fine and some will be more challenging."
Mr Brice praised the government's "pro-active" approach to bird flu prevention which has maintained the marketability of free-range eggs and meat.
"I fully agree with the approach they took, not like in previous years," he said. "It has enabled the status of free-range to continue without any impact or drama for the labelling, and we have got through the high risk period for bird flu without too many outbreaks. They have done well."