Research has indicated that turkeys are much more susceptible than broiler chickens to becoming infected following contact with the H5N1 avian flu virus, although disease patterns are still not fully understood.

This, combined with the two major avian flu outbreaks in 2007 on the Norfolk/Suffolk borders, resulting in the culling of many thousands of turkeys, prompted industry leaders to take a closer look at ways of reducing risk.

Best practice

The British Poultry Council’s (BPC) executive officer, Jeremy Blackburn, is hoping that turkey producers will follow the guidelines wherever possible and he recommends displaying a copy of the document in a prominent position on farms.

“The two major 2007 outbreaks in free-range turkey flocks were almost certainly caused by contact with wild ducks and geese. Migratory waterfowl are most active in the four to six weeks from the beginning of October. This period unfortunately coincides with free-range turkey production for the Christmas market, which is becoming ever more popular,” explains Mr Blackburn.

“However there are steps that outdoor producers can take to reduce risk of infection. It is important that everyone tries to observe the guidelines, because disease outbreaks affect the whole industry, risking damage to consumer confidence in the product.”

Mr Blackburn advises free-range rearers to have provisions in place to house their entire flock, should the need arise. Some least-cost examples include a simple straw bale and wire mesh construction, game release pens or lean-tos and verandahs added to existing sheds. Planning authorities have been sympathetic to applications to put up buildings for disease containment, he adds.

Housing

Ideally, any additional buildings on free-range units should be 3km (1.86 miles) apart and turkeys kept away from other species of poultry.

New sheds should avoid being erected within 1km (0.62 miles) of standing water. And producers with existing units close to ponds ought to use bird-scarers. The RSPB can provide producers with helpful information on migratory routes.

Outdoor turkeys should preferably receive food and water inside, so that wild bird species are not attracted to the unit, with grain spillages being cleared up without delay.

Biosecurity

In general, turkeys have to be in close contact with wild birds and/or wild bird faeces to become infected.

Producers should report any high levels of mortality in their flocks and ensure that staff follow the basic biosecurity procedures. Examples include foot dipping between houses, disinfecting and recording any visiting vehicles that have had previous contact with other units and a visitor book should be used to record site visits.

Cost sharing

With the issue of disease cost sharing and compensation levels featuring heavily in discussions with officials, Mr Blackburn says that it is in producers’ own interests to maintain detailed records, which can be used as evidence to prove that all necessary precautions have been taken.

“Compensation may be available, but usually only if officials have been informed of the disease outbreak in the early stages.

“If the situation goes unreported for any length of time, questions will be asked about whether flock managers have done all they can to reduce risk. We hope that our best practice document will be accepted by the industry, with the recommendations followed wherever possible,” says Mr Blackburn.