Poultry sector faces ‘most challenging time’ as free range birds ordered indoors

Alaistaire Brice, owns Havensfield Happy Hens and is a free range egg producer

Alaistaire Brice of Havensfield Happy Hens now has to bring his free range laying hens indoors after a government order to house all birds in the UK because of the bird flu outbreak - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

East Anglian free range poultry farmers have welcomed a nationwide lockdown to stop the spread of bird flu — but warned pressures are mounting for the industry.

With the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of avian influenza detected at sites in Wells-next-the-Sea, North Fambridge near Maldon and Frinton-on-Sea since the start of November, the region’s free range producers have been feeling highly nervous.

Their efforts are now focused on bringing their birds indoors after the Chief Veterinary Officers for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland said all poultry must be housed from Monday, November 29.

This makes it a legal requirement for all bird keepers across the UK to house their birds and follow strict biosecurity measures to limit the spread of the disease, which can devastate flocks.

It also gives free range producers the security of knowing their free range labelling will be protected for a limited period.

Alaistaire Brice of free range egg producer Havensfield Happy Hens at Hoxne, near Eye, keeps a total of 155,000 laying hens across farms in Norfolk and Suffolk. Two of them are caught up within an exclusion zone set up around the site of a North Norfolk outbreak.

He said the lockdown had come at a very challenging time for the industry which faces rising costs, labour shortages and supply chain issues, and was a couple of weeks earlier than expected.

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“With the number of outbreaks, it’s not surprising they brought it in quickly. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has limited resources and it is already being stretched in some parts of the country,” he said.

“I am pleased they have acted decisively and quickly to house birds its a sensible approach. We will have 16 weeks before having to market our eggs as barn, but if that’s what it takes to keep our birds safe then it’s worth it. 

“Hopefully DEFRA can get on top of the latest outbreaks and prevent any further spread. The size of the UK free range flock is considerable so the industry has an awful lot to lose should it become more widespread.

“We have two farms caught within the 10km zone in North Norfolk which is causing considerable issues with transport, packing and grading of eggs from those farms, but hopefully as this particular outbreak was in a non-commercial flock it should be dealt with and restrictions lifted quickly once DEFRA have completed all the necessary checks and the clean up of the infected premise has been completed.

“The poultry industry is under incredible pressure already with record feed prices, labour shortages, Covid issues and now bird flu. I personally don’t think there’s been a more challenging time.”

Mark Gorton of Traditional Norfolk Poultry (TNP) runs 65 farms in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex producing hundreds of thousands of premium free range turkeys for the Christmas market. He was “very worried” about the bird flu situation which seemed to be spreading “extremely fast”, he said.

He added: “I think this is as bad as it’s ever been, spreading so quickly and so early in the season. It’s across the whole UK. The housing order is unfortunately the right thing to do, I never like to bring my flocks in from roaming in the forests but it is for their best welfare that we are doing it. 

“Our birds have lovely big and spacious houses and they will be very happy once they get used to it. We will give them lots of extra environmental enrichment and lots of extra straw to keep them warm and safe. 

“We are used to doing this and it is not a problem for us but it is a big job for us across all of our farms but everything will be in by the deadline. 

“Bird quality this year is fantastic but make sure you get your order in fast.”