Could birds migrating from Russia bring avian flu back to East Anglia?

Chief vets have warned poultry keepers that wild birds migrating from Russia and Kazakhstan could br

Chief vets have warned poultry keepers that wild birds migrating from Russia and Kazakhstan could bring bird flu back to East Anglia this winter. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2015

Poultry farmers and backyard hen-keepers have been warned that bird flu could return to East Anglia this winter – carried by wild birds migrating from outbreak hotspots in Russia and Kazakhstan.

The UK is currently free of avian influenza, but a highly pathogenic strain of the disease is causing outbreaks in Russia and Kazakhstan and, as winter approaches, the risk of migratory wild birds infecting domestic poultry will rise, said chief veterinary officers.

All poultry keepers, both commercial and domestic, have been urged to take action to improve the biosecurity of their flocks and reduce the risk of a disease outbreak which could have a devastating impact on East Anglia’s poultry industry.

A joint statement by the UK’s four chief veterinary officers says: “Avian flu is a constant threat to all poultry, and with winter approaching there will be an increasing risk of disease making its way into the UK from migrating birds. It is therefore important that all keepers of poultry, including game birds and pet birds, act now to reduce the risk of transmission of avian flu to their flocks.

“Enhanced biosecurity should be maintained at all times, including regularly cleaning and disinfecting the area where you keep birds and separating them from wild birds wherever possible.”

The last major UK outbreak of bird flu in early 2017 including three cases in the Diss area which prompted the culling of thousands of birds and the enforcement of restrictive protection zones to contain the spread of the infection.

The UK has remained free of “highly pathogenic” strains of avian influenza since September 2017, but a “low pathogenic” strain returned to East Anglia in December 2019 when a confirmed case prompted the cull of 27,000 chickens at a commercial chicken farm in Athelington, near Eye. The UK declared itself free from avian influenza in June 2020.

READ MORE: MPs defeat bid to bolster legal safeguards against cheap food importsDefra says all poultry keepers, whether they are running a large commercial farm, keeping a few hens in their back garden, or rearing game birds, can take simple measures to protect their birds against the threat of avian flu in the winter months. These include:

• Keeping the area where birds live clean and tidy, controlling rats and mice and regularly, and cleansing and disinfecting any hard surfaces.

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• Cleaning footwear before and after visits.

• Placing birds’ feed and water in fully enclosed areas that are protected from wild birds, and removing any spilled feed regularly.

• Putting fencing around outdoor areas where birds are allowed and limiting their access to ponds or areas visited by wild waterfowl.

• Where possible, avoid keeping ducks and geese with other poultry species.

READ MORE: Farmers need ‘fair reward’ for maintaining our landscapes, says industry reportPoultry keepers are urged to alert the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) as soon as possible if they suspect any signs of the disease, and also to register their birds on the Great Britain Poultry Register (GBPR).

For keepers with 50 or more birds, this is a legal requirement. Keepers with fewer than 50 birds are also strongly encouraged to register to improve the speed of communication in the event of an outbreak.

Máire Burnett, chairman of the UK Poultry Health and Welfare Group, said: “It is crucial that all keepers remain vigilant, and speak to their vet if they have any concerns about the health of their birds. Avian influenza poses a significant threat to the commercial poultry industry and risks huge economic disruption to international trade due to loss of ‘country freedom’ from avian influenza.”