Farmers fear turkey disease

FARMERS in East Anglia warned last nightthat turkeys are under threat from a disease that could have the same devastating affects on business as foot-and-mouth.

FARMERS in East Anglia warned last nightthat turkeys are under threat from a disease that could have the same devastating affects on business as foot-and-mouth.

Ten million turkeys being reared for the Christmas period are at risk from blackhead, which spreads through earthworms and causes the birds to waste away slowly.

Recent outbreaks of the disease in mainland Europe have raised fears that it could hit British farms.

But Brussels banned the last drug on the market to treat the sickness, Emtryl, earlier this year because of a potential link to cancer in humans and there is currently no alternative drug available.

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Michael Russell, who owns Willowtree Farm in Glemsford, near Sudbury, said the affects of blackhead could be as serious as foot-and-mouth and he would be taking hygiene measures.

He said: "It is quite worrying. If they do get it then it is like foot-and-mouth and could affect a lot of turkeys very soon.

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"We will have to use disinfectant and try and keep people away.

"We will definitely be keeping an eye out for it. It is not as contagious as foot-and-mouth as it is not spread by air but through the soil."

Mr Russell only has 500 turkeys on his farm but the disease could wipe out the birds very quickly.

He said: "It is not a great time. We do not want this sort of thing so close to Christmas as we could lose a lot of money.

"I am not a great producer so I don't know an awful lot about it and whether there is a vaccination but I know the drug has been taken out of the feed. If it's doing people harm then they have to take it out."

Derek Kelly, who runs Kelly Turkey Farms in Danbury, near Chelmsford, called on the EU to overturn the decision to ban the drug.

He said: "The problem is that we do not have any protection for the birds after the ban became effective in May. This is the first Christmas that birds have gone unprotected.

"There is a 50 to 100% mortality rate when turkeys catch this disease so it will affect farms in a big way and we are just holding our breath that we don't get it.

"It is a welfare issue though. The farmers will lose money if their turkeys get it but the birds will die.

"Brussels should reverse the decision and we have been negotiating now for quite a long time with no luck."

He explained that the parasite that transmits the disease does live in chickens without affect but once turkeys catch it they die.

"The infection spreads out on the land and buildings and once it is there the whole turkey flock is at risk.

"It could be spread by birds' feet or perhaps farmers' feet. It is not exactly like foot-and-mouth as that was airborne so was contagious and infectious.

"It is easier to control the spread of this disease but we have no control whatsoever once the birds have got it. They will have to be slaughtered and there is no compensation so there are serious cost implications potentially."

Mr Kelly said that turkey farming generates about £50 to 100million in East Anglia alone, mainly because of the huge output of Bernard Matthews in Norfolk.

The smaller, traditional farm fresh turkey trade in the region is worth about £500,000, with his own farm generating about £250,000.

He added the disease poses a potential threat to the Christmas turkey supply.

In the meantime Mr Kelly has introduced routine worming for his 80 to 100,000 free range bronze turkeys to combat the risk from the disease.

The National Farmers' Union (NFU) stressed there were currently no reported cases of blackhead in the UK and said the risk of it spreading here was low.

A spokesman for the NFU in East Anglia said: "We are confident that the British public will have no problem in buying a British bird this Christmas.

"Although this disease is being reported as a big problem on the Continent, there are no reported cases of it in the UK and the risk of it spreading here is low.

"It has occurred from time to time in Britain in the past but it can be managed by ensuring that flocks are regularly wormed.

"British farmers are committed to rearing turkeys to some of the highest standards in the world and acknowledge the ruling from the European Commission about the withdrawal of this animal medicine, Emtryl.

"In the absence of this medicine, producers are setting up routine worming systems that provide good protection. We have also reminded producers of the importance of prudent biosecurity measures including cleaning up any outside feed spillages and maintaining good hygiene in flocks."

Blackhead, or histomoniasis, is caused by a microscopic parasite, which attacks the birds' livers. It turns the bird's blood blue, making its head darker. The disease poses no threat to humans.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs supports the ban on Emtryl, but has urged the drug's manufacturer to provide the EU with more information which it believes could lead to the decision being reversed.

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