Analysis: Bird flu outbreaks are a major blow for a £500m industry

winch farm at east winch

The farm at East Winch has an outbreak of bird flu - Credit: Stuart Anderson

Norfolk's bird flu outbreaks have come during the critical pre-Christmas period for a poultry sector which is hugely important to the East of England's rural economy.

The two infected farms, one near Attleborough and one near King's Lynn, are part of a regional industry which produces more than 40pc of England’s turkeys and employs about 14,000 people to grow and process poultry meat with a value estimated at £557m in 2018.

Public Health England advise the risk to public health from the H5N8 strain of bird flu is very low, while the Food Standards Agency says avian influenza poses a very low food safety risk for UK consumers.

But the virus can cause severe illness and death in domestic poultry and wild birds, so outbreaks on farms force the huge cost, disruption and stress of culling thousands of birds, followed by stringent disinfecting requirements.

The last major UK outbreak of “highly pathogenic” bird flu in early 2017 included three cases in the Diss area which prompted the culling and incineration of almost 80,000 chickens and ducks.

Despite the culls of around 55,000 birds as a result of this weekend's Norfolk outbreaks, Defra says it does "not anticipate any impact on the supplies of turkeys or other birds over Christmas", adding: "Around 9m British turkeys are reared for Christmas every year."

In response to the growing number of bird flu cases across the country in recent weeks, chief vets announced on Friday that a mandatory housing order would be enforced from December 14, requiring all poultry keepers, including free-range and back-yard flocks, to keep their birds indoors to prevent the spread of the disease.

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John Newton, Norfolk county adviser for the National Farmers' Union (NFU) said: “These outbreaks are extremely worrying news for poultry farmers during a crucial stage in the run-up to Christmas.

“East Anglia is a hugely important region for poultry farming. We would urge all poultry keepers, including members of the public with pet birds, a backyard flock or smallholding, to continue practicing mandatory, enhanced biosecurity measures at all times and prepare for the introduction of housing measures on December 14.

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“It’s crucial everyone remains vigilant and reports any signs of disease in their birds to their vet at the earliest opportunity."

  • Dead wild birds must be reported to the Defra helpline on 03459 33 55 77 and poultry keepers must report suspicion of disease to APHA on 03000 200 301

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