So far the H5N8 strain of avian influenza has been confirmed at a commercial game farm in Lancashire, at two separate poultry farms in Lincolnshire, and in backyard flocks in North Yorkshire and Carmarthenshire. Restrictions remain in place in Wyre, Lancashire (the most recent outbreak confirmed on the 16th of January), and in East Lindsey in Lincolnshire, Settle in North Yorkshire, and Carmarthenshire in Wales. Restrictions have been lifted at Louth in Lincolnshire, the site of the first outbreak on the 16th of December, 2016. The same strain has also been found in wild birds in England, Scotland and Wales, and has been found in wild birds in Europe for several months. We had certainly all hoped that emergency measures to protect captive and farmed bird populations from avian flu, and the severe H5N* strain in particular, would have quickly come to an end, but at the time of writing it was announced that a further 10,000 birds – reared pheasants in Lancashire, on this occasion – are to be culled due to infection.
Avian influenza, also known as bird flu, affects all types of poultry, including chickens, ducks and geese, and a severe strain, H5N8, has been found in both wild and captive birds in the UK. At present, a ‘prevention zone’, which involves keeping birds apart from wild birds, ideally by housing them, is to continue until 28th February, but could well continue into the spring. The following information has been put together by Defra, together with the British Veterinary Association (BVA), the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) and the British Veterinary Poultry Association (BVPA), and covers keepers of all sizes, including backyard keepers, which Defra does understand will be experiencing particular difficulties, both due to space and the desire to keep flocks free-range.
HOW BIRD FLU SPREADS
Bird flu can be passed from wild birds to poultry, causing birds to fall ill and die. It can be transmitted directly from bird to bird or via the environment, for example in wild bird droppings. To reduce the risk of bird flu spreading from bird to bird there is currently a legal requirement for all birds to be housed or otherwise kept separate from wild birds. This means if you keep poultry, including chickens, ducks or geese, even as pets, you must take action to prevent contact with wild birds and protect them from this potentially fatal disease.
Risks to human health are very low, and bird flu does not pose a food safety risk.
PROTECTING YOUR POULTRY
* Where possible, move birds into a suitable building like a shed or outbuilding adapted to house them, or a new temporary structure like a lean-to or a polytunnel.
* Put netting over openings to stop wild birds getting in, and remove any hazardous substances.
* It is your responsibility to ensure your birds’ welfare while indoors, and to keep them calm and comfortable.
* If you keep several types of bird, house chickens or turkeys in separate enclosures from ducks and geese.
* Check the birds regularly to ensure they are healthy and have enough food, water and dry bedding.
* Keep the environment interesting to reduce the risk of feather pecking.
* Add fresh bedding, straw bales, perches and objects such as cabbages, and scatter feed or grain on the floor and add grit to litter to encourage birds to scratch.
* Make sure birds have natural light where possible and are not permanently in the dark. Light should ideally follow typical day and night patterns.
* You may want to consider nutritional supplements in drinking water that can help keep birds calm.
* Skin parasites like red mite can be a problem in birds kept indoors and can make birds more irritable.
* Advice on controlling parasites can be obtained from your vet.
REDUCING THE RISK OF INFECTION
* If you don’t have a suitable building to move your birds into, or the welfare of the birds would suffer if moved indoors, you must take sensible precautions to keep them away from wild birds.
* You should follow these steps to reduce the risk of infection via the environment, for example in wild bird droppings, even if your birds are inside.
* Keep food and water supplies inside where they can not be contaminated, and feed birds inside and keep them away from standing water.
* Where birds remain outside, set up a temporary enclosure covered with netting that wild birds cannot access.
* Minimise movement in and out of your birds’ enclosure and clean footwear before and after visits.
* Keep the area where your birds live clean and tidy, removing spilled feed.
We do hope that as bird migration ceases in spring the outbreaks will end, but there really are no guarantees. The reason for the present restrictions is to protect our poultry, but I am aware it is a difficult situation for many keepers who regard the welfare of their birds as paramount. Indeed many of you probably became keepers for this very reason through the BHWT, but for the moment we all have to comply for the greater good. It has, however, taught us that we do need to be prepared for such eventualities, and most of us are both responsible and imaginative when it comes to fulfilling our duties.
SIGNS OF AVIAN FLU
Signs include loss of appetite, a swollen head and respiratory problems. If you suspect bird flu, call the Defra helpline on 03000 200 301.
Further details can be found at www.gov.uk/guidance/avian-influenza-bird-flu. There is also a video message on YouTube from Government Chief Vet, Nigel Gibbens; to see the video, key the code BbBp1AsGJHM into your search engine.