Free-range chickens© FLPA/REX/Shutterstock

Defra has faced renewed calls to allow housing of free-range poultry in the UK as migrating birds continue to spread avian influenza across Europe.    

The calls were made during talks between Defra and poultry industry officials after Denmark and Croatia became the latest countries to confirm cases of the high-pathogenic H5N8 strain of the virus.

Last week Poland, Switzerland, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands confirmed cases in wild birds.

And, earlier in November, 10,500 commercial turkeys were culled in Hungary after the H5N8 strain was identified in the flock.

The German and Dutch governments have already ordered flocks indoors to cut the risk of contact between commercial hens and infected wild birds.  

See also: EU poultry farms house flocks as bird flu spreads 

The UK is yet to follow suit, which means free range producers must continue to allow hens outdoors or risk jeopardising their free-range status under EU marketing rules.

Only Defra can authorise a temporary housing period to prevent disease but it is seeking assurance from the industry the move would be effective.

Migratory birds bring risk

NFU chief poultry adviser Gary Ford insisted the case to house flocks was compelling.

Speaking after the talks on 16 November Mr Ford said: “Defra is still categorising the risk of incursion into commercial flocks as ‘low but heightened’.”

He said with more migratory birds arriving along Britain’s coast all the time, the risk level could be high by the time the situation was reviewed again at the end of the week.

“The disease is fast-moving and the case to house birds now on a regional basis is compelling.

“Flocks down the east coast of Britain are most exposed to migrating birds and should be housed to cut the disease risk.”

“We believe that housing as part of a suite of measures could cut that risk dramatically,” Mr Ford said.

Heightened biosecurity

He said that measures should include heightened biosecurity and increased vigilance.

Further information

“Poultry units should ban all non-essential visits to the farm.

“Those visits that are necessary should be kept from the bird side if possible.

“All vehicles that enter the farm must be disinfected,” Mr Ford said.   

Vigilance must also be stepped up and any suspect cases should be reported immediately, he said.

Water use, feed intakes and egg production must also be monitored closely for any signs of change, he warned.   

Chief executive of the British Free Range Egg Producers Association Robert Gooch added that he was “extremely concerned by the developing situation in Europe.

“Cold weather in feeding grounds on the continent is driving these migratory birds towards the UK.

“The disease it is worryingly close to our coast,” said Mr Gooch.

Temporary housing order

“We would like Defra to allow housing as soon as possible.

 “A temporary order would be enough to see us through the eight- to 10-week period when migratory birds come into the UK to overwinter,” he added.

In the meantime he urged poultry farmers to be on their guard.

Any suspected cases should be raised with the farm’s vet and could be tested free under the Animal and Plant Health Agency’s free testing for exclusion of notifiable avian disease scheme, Mr Gooch said.

Weather will increase threat

British Egg Industry Council chief executive Mark Williams is also behind the call to move flocks indoors.

“We are watching carefully as events unfold,” Mr Williams said.

“The threat will increase rapidly if winter weather hits eastern Europe and freezes water and breeding grounds.

“That would cause a major migration of wild birds towards UK shores,” he said.

Mr Williams said poultry producers should familiarise themselves with disease symptoms and report any concerns immediately.

He added the NFU had organised a series of contingency planning roadshows across Britain and he urged poultrykeepers to attend to get the latest advice and updates on the developing situation.

How to spot avian influenza

There are two types of avian influenza (AI).

High-pathogenic AI (HPAI) is the more serious type. It is often fatal in birds. The main clinical signs are:

  • Swollen head
  • Blue discolouration of neck and throat
  • Loss of appetite
  • Respiratory distress such as gaping beak, coughing, sneezing, gurgling, rattling
  • Diarrhoea
  • Fewer eggs laid
  • Increased mortality.

Clinical signs can vary between species and some may show minimal clinical signs (ducks and geese).

Low-pathogenic AI (LPAI) is usually less serious. It can cause mild breathing problems, but affected birds will not always show clear signs of infection.

The severity of LPAI depends on the type of bird and whether it has any other illnesses.