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‘It is like building a Porsche and then taking the badge off it’ – how Defra’s bird flu restrictions could down-grade free range poultry

PUBLISHED: 18:26 08 February 2017 | UPDATED: 18:26 08 February 2017

Mark Gorton of Traditional Norfolk Poultry, with some of his free-range chickens, pictured before the prevention zone was introduced. Photograph Simon Parker

Mark Gorton of Traditional Norfolk Poultry, with some of his free-range chickens, pictured before the prevention zone was introduced. Photograph Simon Parker

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Some poultry producers in East Anglia face “significant threats to their businesses” as new targeted bird flu prevention measures mean they could no longer label their products as free range.

Bird flu high risk areas in East Anglia Bird flu high risk areas in East Anglia

A UK-wide “prevention zone” was declared in December which meant all poultry had to be kept indoors, to halt the spread of the highly-pathogenic H5N8 strain of avian influenza, which has since been found in flocks in Lancashire, Lincolnshire and North Yorkshire.

Defra said 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 – Defra says “eggs and some 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.

One farmer concerned about the financial impact of this de-classification is Mark Gorton, a director of Traditional Norfolk Poultry (TNP), a speciality producer of free-range chickens and turkeys based in Shropham, near Attleborough.

“Potentially it is not good news for us,” he said. “We have got some farms inside that area, and some outside. So what are we going to do? We are going to have some chickens coming into the factory that are free range, and some that are not.

“It is all very early and we are still trying to work out the implications. The retailers are working with us, as we are all in the same boat. But it is potentially a two-tier situation with some farms in that zone, and some outside.

“The whole system around free range is different. This is not just a regular chicken where you let it outside and call it free range. The breeding is different, the feed is different and the stocking densities are different. Our whole system is geared up to be free range and if we have to take a cut in what we sell these chickens for then we will be losing money. It is like building a Porsche and then taking the badge off it and trying to sell it for the same price.”

National Farmers’ Union president Meurig Raymond added: “Free-range poultry producers now face significant threats to their businesses after Defra’s introduction of Higher Risk Areas. The affected producers will now lose free-range status from 1 March and this will have a considerable effect on the supply chain.

“Half of the UK’s national flock is free-range, by far the highest percentage of any EU member state, and this will have a serious effect on the British public where demand for free-range has increased significantly over the past 25 years.”

Robert Gooch, chief executive of the British Free Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA), said: “Those producers in the High Risk Area who will be forced to continue to house birds face the prospect of their eggs being downgraded, which we estimate to cost businesses at least 20p per dozen.”

All poultry keepers will need to undertake minimum biosecurity measures by law. However, Defra estimates that mandatory housing will no longer be required for 75pc of keepers.

The Higher Risk Areas are close to inland or coastal water bodies, where significant numbers of wild birds such as gulls and waterfowl gather, such as lakes, marshes or estuaries.

Defra said an interactive map will be available on Thursday which will show detailed locations likely to be designated as higher risk.

In addition, poultry keepers with more than 1,000 birds will need to take some extra biosecurity measures, including identifying clearly defined areas where access by non-essential people and vehicles will be restricted. Vehicles, equipment and footwear must be cleansed and disinfected.

These measures will provisionally remain in place until the end of April. Defra said this approach remains under review and a final decision will be confirmed at the end of February 2017.

For full details on the updated bird flu prevention measures, see the Defra web site.

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