A Norfolk vet has warned the bird flu crisis is "taking its toll" on poultry farmers and animal health teams - as he urged businesses to bolster their mental health support.

Ian Lowery is a partner at Crowshall Veterinary Services in Attleborough, a specialist poultry practice working with commercial farms which produce meat and eggs.

In recent weeks, the Breckland area has become a national hotspot for the UK's worst-ever bird flu epidemic, with 15 cases near Attleborough alone - sparking devastating culls of hundreds of thousands of poultry birds.

Mr Lowery said while the welfare and financial impacts of avian influenza on poultry businesses and their birds was well documented, it is important not to overlook the "human costs".

"Over the last few months the threat of avian influenza has been a constant spectre for poultry producers, especially in this area," he said. "The continuous worry that a passing migratory bird could introduce infection into a farm is surely taking its toll on poultry owners, and flock managers.

"I have personally spoken with a number of clients who openly describe the effects of this worry. Loss of sleep, short-temperedness, panic attacks and more. And I suspect this is just the tip of the iceberg.

"It is important to acknowledge that within the context of bird flu, feelings of mild anxiousness and concern are totally normal.

"At the practice, we have trained a number of key members of staff as 'mental health first aiders'. I would urge other businesses working in our sector to consider doing the same.

"We have also made sure that leaflets and stickers from charities such as YANA are visible around the building to ensure that anyone visiting the practice will be aware of potential sources of help."

Emma Haley is manager of rural mental health charity YANA (You Are Not Alone), which provides confidential support and counselling to farmers and their families.

She echoed Mr Lowery's concerns and said veterinary and poultry workers should look for changes in their colleagues' behaviour, and make time to listen to their concerns.

"There is a lot more pressure and increased workload, which is making it difficult to manage," she said. 

"We are finding that although people are trained to do their job, they are not trained to be dealing with calls from stressed clients in these scenarios, so to have some skills in place where you can support your colleagues, it will help create those safe spaces and a supportive environment which will make a real difference.

"I think it is really important to stay connected with each other and check in, even if it is just a text message at the end of the day - just for colleagues to be looking out for each other, and create opportunities to have a quick conversation."

  • YANA offers confidential mental health support and counselling for those in farming and rural industries in Norfolk and Suffolk. Contact the helpline on 0300 323 0400 or visit yanahelp.org.