Defra tells poultry keepers to take precautions against bird flu outbreak
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Poultry farmers across East Anglia have been ordered to bring their birds indoors to protect against a dangerous strain of bird flu circulating in Europe.
Outbreaks of a highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza, H5N8, have been confirmed in poultry and wild birds in several countries, from Poland to France.
No cases of H5N8 have yet been found in the UK, but as the industry enters the busy Christmas period the government has implemented precautionary measures to help prevent potential infection from wild birds.
Chief vet Nigel Gibbens has declared a 'prevention zone' for England, with requirements for commercial and individual poultry and captive bird keepers to keep their birds inside, or take 'appropriate steps to keep them separate from wild birds'.
The zone will remain in place for 30 days.
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There have been no cases of the strain infecting humans, and Public Health England (PHE) advises that the threat to human health remains very low.
Prof Gibbens said Defra had increased its surveillance for the disease, and keepers are being urged to reinforce biosecurity measures.
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'Even when birds are housed a risk of infection remains so this must be coupled with good biosecurity – for example disinfecting clothing and equipment, reducing poultry movement and minimising contact between poultry and wild birds,' he said.
Mark Gorton is a director of Traditional Norfolk Poultry (TNP), a speciality producer of free-range chickens and turkeys based in Shropham, near Attleborough. He is also a member of the poultry board for the National Farmers' Union (NFU).
'We have been discussing this for some time, and we said the sensible thing to do was to issue a housing order where there is an imminent threat,' he said.
'This decision has not been taken lightly, but it is important to stress that this is being done as a precautionary measure.
'For free range poultry, it is not an easy thing, because these are athletic birds that are used to living outside, so they don't want to be closed up.
'It does create a number of issues. But these problems pale into insignificance compared to what would happen if our birds got infected with bird flu, so it is the right thing to do.
'It is not just a case of shutting the doors and saying it is alright, because the threat is still there. It can be transmitted a number of ways and the implications could be colossal, so the whole industry is on red alert and we need to make sure we keep our biosecurity measures up to scratch.'
Mr Gorton said the restrictions, although falling during the busy festive period, could have been worse if they had been introduced earlier.
'The only saving grace is that it didn't happen two weeks ago,' he said. 'We started preparing our Christmas birds in November and we are about two-thirds through our campaign, so we have probably only got a week's worth of production to do. If this had happened a week later it would have been better, but if it had happened two weeks ago it would have been a disaster.
'These birds have been outside since the summer, and most of them will be processed and safe in a cold store by now. It is not as bad as it could have been.'
Gary Ford, the NFU's chief poultry adviser, added: 'We welcome this risk-based move by Defra as proportionate given the current risk posed by the wild bird population to commercial poultry.
'Many of our members, particularly on the eastern side of the country, have been calling for such a decision for several weeks now as the risk posed by avian influenza in the migratory wild bird population throughout Europe to the commercial poultry sector has increased. In the run-up to Christmas, the poultry sector in England is in a critical phase.
'Where it will not be possible practically to house all free range birds farmers are urged to take reasonable measures to prevent contact with wild birds.
'Given that this is a mandatory housing requirement, producers will be able to retain their free range status – both eggs and poultry meat – for a period of up to twelve weeks from the date of the decision, although the zone is, currently, for 30 days only.'
Poultry keepers are advised to be vigilant for any signs of disease in their birds and any wild birds, and seek prompt advice from their vet if they have any concerns. They can help prevent avian flu by maintaining good biosecurity on their premises, including:
• Cleansing and disinfecting clothing, footwear, equipment and vehicles before and after contact with poultry – if practical, use disposable protective clothing.
• Reducing the movement of people, vehicles or equipment to and from areas where poultry are kept to minimise contamination from manure, slurry and other products and using effective vermin control.
• Thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting housing at the end of a production cycle.
• Keeping fresh disinfectant at the right concentration at all points where people should use it, such as farm entrances and before entering poultry housing or enclosures
• Minimising direct and indirect contact between poultry and wild birds, including making sure all feed and water is not accessible to wild birds.
Members of the public are also being asked to report cases of dead wild waterfowl such as swans, geese and ducks, or gulls, or five or more dead birds of other species to Defra.
How will the restrictions affect your poultry business? Contact email@example.com.