Government says still no need to house flocks despite avian flu spread

Government officials and poultry industry representatives have advised that there is still no need to house outdoor flocks, despite the recent arrival of the deadly H5N1 form of avian flu within the EU’s borders.

H5N1 has now been found in dead swans in Greece, Italy and Germany. Cases have also been confirmed in Bulgaria, while the highly infectious strain is strongly suspected in Slovenia, Hungary and Austria.

DEFRA announced on Wednesday (15 February) that it was maintaining that the risk of H5N1 reaching UK shores was “low”.

It was urging a high level of vigilance among flock keepers and encouraging high biosecurity. But there was no need to move birds indoors.

This was despite the fact that the German case had been found in dead swans on the island of Rugen in the Baltic, the furthest west the disease has travelled and just 500 miles from the UK.

“We are talking to bird migration experts and carrying out a risk assessment, but as of now our position has not changed,” said the spokesman.

The Swedish authorities, in contrast, have instructed their poultry farmers to house free range flocks with immediate effect, while Germany is advancing legislation to do the same from Monday (20 February).

The Dutch already house all birds, while the Danes decided on Wednesday (15 February) to make this a requirement for flocks of over 100.

The Czech Republic will make housing compulsory from the end of February, and has banned all poultry shows.

Chief executive of the British Poultry Council Peter Bradnock said it was important that the industry was guided by DEFRA’s risk assessment and did not panic.

“These cases were not unexpected,” he said. “Migrating birds have been disturbed from their normal routes by the harsh weather, but the outbreaks are still in isolated areas and are not in poultry flocks.”

Mr Bradnock said he was more concerned by the H5N1 outbreaks reported in Nigeria. There was a greater chance of birds from this area migrating towards the UK in the spring and this needed watching closely.

But conservation group Birdlife International believes the Nigerian outbreaks have been caused by illegal imports of infected chicks.

“Movements of chickens around the world take place 365 days a year, unlike the seasonal migrations of wild birds,” said director of science, Leon Bennun.