Free-range poultry must be kept indoors to stop bird flu outbreaks

Traditional Norfolk Poultry director Mark Gorton with some of his firm's free-range turkeys. Picture

Traditional Norfolk Poultry director Mark Gorton with some of his firm's free-range turkeys - Credit: Chris Hill

All of East Anglia's free-range and back-yard poultry flocks will need to be kept indoors under strict new rules to prevent the spread of bird flu.

The new housing order will be enforced from December 14 to help protect poultry and captive birds from the disease which could be devastating for the region's poultry sector in its critical run-up to Christmas.

It makes it a legal requirement for all bird keepers – whether they run commercial poultry businesses or small backyard flocks – to keep their birds indoors and to follow strict biosecurity measures to limit the spread of the virus.

Bird keepers are encouraged to use the next 10 days to prepare for new housing measures, including taking steps to safeguard animal welfare, consult their vet and, where necessary, put up additional housing.

A joint statement from Britain’s three chief veterinary officers said: "We have not taken this decision lightly, but it is the best way to protect your birds from this highly infectious disease."

The introduction of the new measures follows confirmed cases of the highly-pathogenic H5N8 strain of avian influenza which prompted culls of captive birds and commercial poultry flocks in Cheshire, Herefordshire, Leicestershire and North Yorkshire, as well as an increasing number of cases in wild birds across the country.

Mark Gorton, managing director of Traditional Norfolk Poultry (TNP), based at Shropham, near Attleborough, is a specialist free-range producer and also a member of the National Farmers' Union (NFU) poultry board.

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"This is certainly a sensible precaution," he said. "There is a very high level of bird flu all over the place, so I think this will be broadly welcomed across the industry.

"At this time of year, it is not as bad as it could be as the weather is cold so the birds want to spend a lot of time inside anyway, and there is plenty of room in a free-range shed. 

"It will put pressure on bedding and litter, but it is the right thing to do.

"The birds will maintain their free-range status - there are lots of other factors around growing free-range chickens, their feed is a much more wholesome diet and they are slower growing breeds.

"And by December 14 the turkeys will all be processed for Christmas so it won't affect them."

The housing orders follow the declaration of a national Avian Influenza Protection Zone (AIPZ) on November 11, requiring all bird keepers to take extra biosecurity precautions, such as cleaning and disinfecting equipment, clothing and vehicles, limiting access to non-essential people on their sites, and workers changing clothing and footwear before entering bird enclosures.

Public health advice is that the risk to human health from the virus is very low and food standards bodies advise that avian influenzas pose a very low food safety risk for UK consumers.

  • Bird keepers and the public should report dead wild birds to the Defra helpline on 03459 33 55 77 (option 7), and keepers should report suspected cases to APHA on 03000 200 301. For more advice on bird flu prevention measures, see the avian influenza page on the .GOV website.