Opposition MPs and animal rights campaigners are trying to overturn new legislation that would allow millions of chickens to be suffocated as a means of containing an outbreak of avian flu.

An early day motion was laid in parliament this week by Conservative MPs – including party leader David Cameron and agriculture spokesman Jim Paice – demanding that the new provision for “ventilation shutdown” in poultry houses be annulled.

“We do not believe that suffocation is a satisfactory method of culling poultry,” Mr Paice told Farmers Weekly.

“It flies in the face of anything to do with animal welfare and is totally unacceptable.

It would be another blow for the image of farming.”

Compassion in World Farming chief executive Philip Lymbery also condemned the move.

“It is possible that many birds will die in shocking circumstances and we could be faced with scenes comparable to those at the height of the foot-and-mouth crisis.”

The new rule was introduced by government at the end of April.

A DEFRA spokesman said each case would be assessed individually and ventilation shutdown would only be a last resort.

“We must bear in mind that we are dealing with highly pathogenic avian flu, where buildings could be full of birds which are already suffering.”

Human safety was also paramount, as the normal method of culling – gathering the birds, stunning and then gassing them in portable containers – would involve too much human contact.

These points are supported by the poultry industry. British Veterinary Poultry Association president Nigel Horrox said ventilation could be the “lesser of two evils”.

“There may be more suffering and welfare problems attached to doing nothing,” he said at this week’s Pig and Poultry Fair.

British Poultry Council chief executive Peter Bradnock said;

“We see ventilation as a last resort, but it’s wrong to overturn its use in extreme cases, where our ultimate aim is to protect human health.”

But while Mr Paice accepted that human safety was paramount, there were still better alternatives to suffocation, he said, for example introducing toxic gases to the ventilation, shooting or poisoning the water supply.

The early day motion is likely to be debated and voted on in a parliamentary committee before the summer recess in July.

For more on the Pig & Poultry Fair see Business and Livestock sections and Poultry World (June issue).

philip.clarke@rbi.co.uk