Free-range organic hens© Tim Scrivener

Defra is considering a new proposal from the Poultry Health and Welfare Group (PHWG) to sanction the wider housing of free-range poultry during any future avian influenza (AI) outbreak.

The plan was discussed at a meeting on 16 November in response to producer concerns that too many birds remained outside during the last AI outbreak near Preston in July, leaving them exposed to potential infection from wild birds.

It is understood that the British Egg Industry Council requested Defra introduce a wider housing order during that outbreak, covering much of the north of England, but this was turned down.

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Normal practice during an outbreak is to require the housing of outdoor poultry, to the extent that this is possible, within the 3km protection zone and the 10km surveillance zone around the infected premises.

These birds are normally allowed to remain inside for up to 12 weeks without losing their free-range status.

But unless the government’s chief vet puts in place a housing order for flocks outside these zones, any producers who voluntarily house their birds as a precautionary measure could lose their free-range status.

The plan now submitted to Defra suggests requiring producers to house their birds – or at least separate them from wild birds – for up to seven days in the event of an AI outbreak. This would cover an area of up to 50km from an infected premises.

If Defra then confirms that the route of transmission is not wild birds, the housing order would be lifted.

Defra has yet to decide whether or not to accept the proposal and has asked for further evidence in relation to the technical aspects and trigger points.

“It was a very constructive meeting involving the whole poultry sector and government, though a bit more work needs to be done,” PHWG chairman Mark Williams told Poultry World.