Poultry keepers prepare for bird flu lockdown
- Credit: Archant
It could have been much worse.
If the national bird flu lockdown had happened any sooner, north Suffolk free range egg producer Alaistaire Brice might have struggled to retain his ‘free range’ status come spring.
And Essex premium turkey producer Paul Kelly could have found himself putting his free range birds inside early, posing all kinds of logistical headaches.
MORE — Community mourns death of ‘caring and dedicated’ farmer and family manAs it is, Hoxne-based livestock farmer Alaistaire hopes that this week’s order to bring birds indoors by December 14 gives him time to acclimatise his flocks and won’t threaten his status.
The lockdown order isn’t the best of news — but it is necessary as a precaution, he believes.
Under status rules, free range birds shouldn’t be kept indoors for longer than 16 weeks or their eggs risk having to be re-labelled. But by around February, the migrating birds which bring avian flu in from the continent should have moved on, lifting the threat posed by the disease. Hopefully by then the temporary restrictions will be removed.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) announced on Thursday, December 3, that all birds should be housed inside by mid-December and kept under a strict set of biosecurity conditions.
So far seven cases of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) H5N8 in poultry or other captive birds have now been confirmed in Britain, including at a turkey farm in Northallerton, North Yorkshire, a wetland centre in Stroud in Gloucestershire and broiler breeder chickens in Leominster, Herefordshire. As is standard, 3km Protection Zones and 10km Surveillance Zones now ring the infected premises.
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East Anglia is a big poultry producing region, but happily avoided infections in flocks last year. But bird flu has struck the region before with devastating consequences for flock owners and no one is complacent.
Luckily for Danbury-based turkey farmer Paul, the DEFRA deadline means that his Christmas turkey trade won’t be affected at all.
Paul has been preoccupied with rebuilding his processing plant after the previous factory was destroyed by fire on Good Friday.
He has project-managed the work himself, using his experience from a previous rebuild five years ago.
An impressive 27 weeks later, the plant was totally rebuilt ready to process turkeys for Thanksgiving celebrations on November 1 and the start of the Christmas campaign on November 20.
“In our case we finish dry plucking turkeys today and those birds that will be wet plucked will be housed until then,” he explains.
“Provided poultry are kept on free range for at least half of their life, they qualify as free range under the European law - so there is no issue about housing birds for the final week or so of their life.
“That’s the general situation with Christmas turkey producers around the country - they’ll be coming towards the end of plucking birds,” he explains.
Because of lockdown, turkey farmers have been fattening fewer turkeys this year, so demand for Christmas turkey has been “good”, especially with more families staying at home, he says.
“In our case we’ve been sold out to the retail trade for some while now, but we’re still taking orders for farm gate sales and overnight deliveries.”
Alaistaire is constantly vigilant for bird flu, which could be potentially devastating for his business. Havensfield Happy Hens keeps 160,000 laying hens in 22 flocks spread across farms in Norfolk and Suffolk, with some managed by contract producers. His biggest customer is the East of England Co-op but that only represents about 12% of his market. He has about 700 customers of all sizes he supplies, including hospitals, schools and stallholders.
The current lockdown comes as no surprise. “It’s expected, bearing in mind the sporadic cases that have been going on up and down the country,” he says. Last year, they had a reprieve when bird flu didn’t arrive in the country but this year it started “with a bang”, he says.
“There’s a huge amount of nervousness,” he says. With fewer slaughter houses, some birds were travelling much further to be slaughtered putting added pressure on the infrastructure. There was also the problem of some smallholders and householders keeping birds with little regard for or knowledge of biosecurity. During the migration season, wild birds can arrive and infect flocks.
Lockdown has unleashed a huge surge in interest in keeping birds. Alaistaire has fielded a large number of calls from householders seeking egg laying hens to start a flock — but he has turned them away.
“If they get bird flu and they are within 10 miles of us, we pay the price,” he reasons.
As it is he will be focusing his attention over the next couple of weeks on getting his hens used to the move indoors. Younger birds will adapt quickly. The older flocks take longer and hens can suffer anxiety or aggression if their regime changes suddenly. With days shortening, the season is on his side, but he has to act carefully. He will also be adding toys and other devices to help stimulate and distract the birds while they are stuck indoors.
“It’s a bit like us when we were told to lock down,” he explains. “It’s really strange because as one lockdown ends, another one starts.”
The risk to human health from Avian Influenza is very low and the disease poses a very low food safety risk for UK consumers. It does not affect the consumption of poultry products, including eggs, says DEFRA.