Free range farmer’s fury at inequality of Defra bird flu rules
PUBLISHED: 14:55 10 February 2017 | UPDATED: 14:55 10 February 2017
An East Anglian free range egg producer is infuriated by “two-tier” new bird flu prevention rules, which he fears will punish some farmers while allowing others to return to normal operations.
Defra declared a national “prevention zone” in December, requiring all poultry to be housed indoors to stop the spread of the highly-pathogenic H5N8 strain of avian influenza,
When that order expires on February 28, keepers can allow their birds to return outdoors into fenced areas, provided they meet mandatory biosecurity conditions – apart from those in Higher Risk Areas, who must still keep their birds indoors, or in fenced runs fully covered by netting.
In those designated areas – including stretches of the East Anglian coast, the Broads and Breckland – eggs and poultry from housed birds will no longer be classed as free range, as they will have been inside for longer than the 12 weeks permitted by EU law.
Alaistaire Brice, of Havensfield Happy Hens based at Hoxne, near Eye, said about 25pc of his birds are based inside HRAs – the same proportion as the national total – meaning the status of his product will be downgraded to barn eggs, dropping the price by up to 30p per dozen.
“They are hanging us out to dry,” he said. “It infuriates me. Although they are saying we can let the birds out in the low-risk areas, there are a whole lot of requirements we need to abide by before we get to that stage. These measures are so impractical we can’t begin to think about how we do it.
“It says we must remove all food sources from the range, but we have a site where we have got 30,000 trees and grass growing. Am I supposed to cut the trees down and plough up the grass? What we do as free range farmers is to try and improve and enrich the environment for birds, but now if I want to let my birds out I have got to disinfect the soil.
“These rules are made by scientists sitting in an office thinking about ideals, but as farmers we have got to get them to think that what they have written down is completely unachievable.
“My whole business is based around having nothing but free range eggs, but now there will be 20,000 barn eggs a day and I have no market for them.
“I am in a real quandary because if I let my birds out under their conditions and I contract avian influenza I don’t get any compensation, but if I choose to keep them inside at least I will have a barn egg to sell, but I will be losing 30p a dozen and it will be untenable. You will end up killing out the birds. We are being held to ransom, and it is uncomfortable feeling. I have not spoken to one poultry producer who can find one positive thing to say.”
Chief veterinary officer Nigel Gibbens said: “Effective disease control will always be our priority. Based on the current situation, we believe mandatory biosecurity across England, combined with targeted housing or range netting in higher risk areas, is the best option to control disease, protect birds’ welfare and ensure consumers can buy free range products.
“We have acted swiftly to limit the spread of H5N8, including requiring all birds to be housed or kept separate from wild birds. The 12-week housing requirement has allowed keepers time to introduce stricter biosecurity measures and our intention now is to lift this from 28 February. Current rules on housing still remain in place until then, but we are setting out plans now to give people time to prepare. We will keep this decision under review.
“H5N8 continues to circulate in wild birds and poultry keepers must remain vigilant. This proposal does not mean a return to business as usual and we will continue to do everything we can to reduce the risk from this disease.”
WHAT DO THE NEW RULES MEAN?
Until February 28, all poultry keepers must keep their birds indoors, and are required by law to undertake minimum biosecurity measures.
A series of “higher risk areas” have been identified in areas such as lakes, marshes or estuaries where wild birds gather. After February 28, Defra says poultry keepers in these zones will continue to be required to either:
• Continue to keep birds housed, in permanent or temporary sheds, or
• Allow birds outdoors but only into a fenced run which is fully covered by netting.
Outside these higher risk areas, in addition to the options above, poultry keepers will also have the option to allow birds outdoors into fenced areas provided they meet certain conditions:
• The areas have been made unattractive to wild birds, for example ponds have been netted, and wild bird food sources removed.
• Action has been taken to reduce any existing contamination, such as disinfecting concrete areas, and fencing off wet or boggy areas.
• Assessments have been made of the risk of birds coming into contact with wild birds or contamination from them.
Defra says these measures will provisionally remain in place until the end of April 2017. The approach “remains under review” and a final decision will be confirmed at the end of February.
To view the detailed interactive map of higher risk areas, visit the Defra web site.