Concern is growing among UK poultrykeepers as cases of high-pathogenic H5N8 avian influenza continue to spread across Europe towards Britain.

Since the beginning of November the disease has been found in Hungary, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Poland.

Timeline: High-pathogenic avian influenza spread

  • 4 November Commercial turkeys in Hungary
  • 7 November Wild birds in Poland
  • 8 November Wild birds in Lake Dabi and Baltic Sea region, north Germany
  • 9 November
    – dead wild birds in Austria, Germany and Switzerland
    – dead waterfowl found near Amsterdam (unconfirmed as AI)
    – Dutch agriculture secretary orders housing of all commercial poultry

See also: Biosecurity is key to keeping avian influenza at bay

The Hungarian case, on a commercial turkey finishing unit, saw 10,500 birds culled and a 3km protection zone set up around the infected farm.

In other countries the disease was detected in wild birds.

Wild bird flying

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Authorities in Germany have ordered free-range flocks inside. And Dutch officials have decided to house flocks after a number of dead wild birds were found in Amsterdam.

The Dutch cases have not yet been confirmed as carrying the disease, but as it is just 150 miles off the east-coast of England, the situation has caused alarm this side of the North Sea.

A spokesman for Defra urged farmers to be vigilant and added that the UK’s risk level was “low but heightened” for an incursion of avian influenza.

“The outbreak in Hungary and the wild bird cases in Poland are indicative of further evidence that this virus is circulating in wild birds and therefore incursions into poultry farms can be expected,” he warned.

Worrying

AI information

British Egg Industry Council chief executive Mark Williams said the situation was becoming more worrying as wild birds continue to migrate from their summer breeding grounds in Asia towards Britain.

“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 that 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.