This year’s Temperton Fellow has called on the UK government and the poultry industry to work together to establish an early-warning system for migratory birds that can carry H5N1 avian flu.

Then armed with this knowledge, free-range turkey producers would be able to take measures to avoid contact between wild birds and poultry, such as temporarily housing flocks during the high-risk period.

Delivering his Temperton Fellowship Report, Bernard Matthews Foods technical director Jeremy Hall (pictured) highlighted the trend towards free-range Christmas turkeys. “TV chefs are encouraging consumers to go free range, which has led to a 15% growth in Christmas turkey volume. But outdoor farming brings risk and the sector needs to find how to manage this during the higher-risk autumn migration season. So the challenge is to rear turkeys through the highest risk months without any outbreaks.”

One big limitation highlighted by Mr Hall, undermining the industry’s preparedness, is the lack of information on movement of the virus. He said that while there was good EU information on routine wild-bird testing, the approach was disjointed.

“The EC’s way of reporting the previous quarter’s results means data are available only when it is about five months out of date. However, the European picture on virus movement is critical and we need a faster web-based reporting system.”

Mr Hall added: “I remember having meetings with the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and I was amazed by the sophistication of its records and mapping. Using those data with satellite tracking, we could track bird movement and know precisely when birds start their journey back to the UK.

“But the government needs to put more support into wild-bird testing and monitoring. At the moment, we are depending on the goodwill of the RSPB and BTO for bird spotting. DEFRA is inadequately supporting this and we need to halt the decline in bird collections for avian flu testing.”

Mr Hall believed the common pochard was the most likely candidate for carrying and harbouring the H5N1 avian flu virus in Europe.

“Looking at wild birds testing positive, there were mainly swans and pochards. But as swans either migrate short distances or don’t migrate at all, they are picking up infection from other species.”

In contrast, the common pochard travels huge distances to its breeding grounds in eastern Russia and China, so spends the summer in contact with wildfowl in areas known to have a high presence of infection. And about 84,000 of these return to the UK each autumn.

Better information and an early detection system would enable producers to take action during high-risk weeks. But there was still the issue of flocks losing free-range status when temporarily housed. “We are in talks with Animal Health Teams in DEFRA to secure a UK concession on risk-reduction grounds and for an option to house free-range birds during the high-risk weeks in late October and November.”

Demanding challenge

According to DEFRA’s analysis, turkeys are 37 times more susceptible to avian flu than chickens. So given the rise in the number of turkeys being reared outdoors to comply with free-range standards and birds that are being reared under major bird migration routes, the sector faces the challenge of meeting consumer demand and mitigating the avian flu risk.

The turkey industry, including Bernard Matthews, together with the British Poultry Council, NFU, the Traditional Free-range Turkey Association, Quality British Turkey and Red Tractor has drawn up some best practice guidelines to help minimise risk.