Bird flu: what next?
All poultry in England was allowed outside again from April 13. The announcement by the UK’s Chief Veterinary Officer was excellent news, and whilst it does still require all keepers in England to continue to comply with the strict biosecurity measures (see box), and while it does not mean the prevention zone is lifted totally, many will breathe a sigh of relief for what has been a very tough four-and-a-half months. The ban on poultry gatherings, though, will remain in force until further notice.
My gut feeling had been that this would be lifted towards the end of April as there had not been any further cases reported in the UK and the intensity of the problem on the Continent was starting to wane. However, just before we went to print on April 21, DEFRA said the potential risk associated with lifting the ban on poultry gatherings is under permanent review, and no decision had yet been reached as to when the ban would be lifted. This makes me ponder what the long term impact will be.”
Commercial poultry and egg producers have not gone
unscathed despite what some might think, but it is a resilient industry that will bounce back. It has done so before, and it is almost assured given our ‘reliance’ upon chickens as a source of protein these days. But that is not to say that some may no longer risk rearing poultry in a free- range manner, particularly those in the High Risk Areas (HRAs) that were defined during the most recent phase of controls.
But what of the small-scale keepers, breeders and off gate egg sellers? With regard to the eggs, I’ve been fortunate. My buyers were aware of the bird flu issues, were sensitive as to when and how they obtained their weekly eggs and have stuck with me as despite the inconvenience. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the breeding side of things. I’ve not noticed a drop in enquiries for hatching eggs and birds but the number of times I’ve had to apologise, saying I had nothing available at the moment, will surely have a longer term impact on that side of my business.
All the early auctions of the year have been cancelled (just as a good number of the major shows have) because poultry gatherings were banned. As a consequence, there has been a restricted outlet for livestock or hatching eggs. Lifting the ban for the beginning of May would leave a very narrow window when normally auctions will have been active for a large part of the first four months of the year.
Hatching for me has been very limited, too, as my husbandry techniques depend upon me being able to get my growers out on to pasture as early as possible. With the restrictions and enhanced biosecurity requirements in place during the early spring, sense has meant I’ve had to hold back.
But what of the future? What happens if H5N8 returns or H5N9 reaches Europe in the autumn of 2017? What if the restrictions are applied again? What if that becomes an annual event, and what will that mean to small-scale suppliers, keepers and the show scene?
Everyone’s birds will need to be kept indoors and undercover once more, auctions as an outlet for the years stock will be cancelled just as the birds are reaching their prime for market, and shows will be cancelled just when the birds are ‘bang on form’. It’s a game changer when you think about it.
What is the point of breeding for onward sale if one of the main routes to market, the livestock auction, is only an available during the ‘off season’? What is the point of breeding for show when the prime time for showing is when the birds are not at their best? And overall will it mean less backyard poultry flocks?
Small-scale poultry breeders and show people (those in the Fancy as it is called) are the mainstay, and champions of all pure breed poultry. Without them many, if not all of the pure poultry breeds of the UK would have been lost. With the distinct possibility of the avian flu restrictions reappearing, then we could well see a losing battle for the pure breeds going forward. In fact, even if the restrictions don’t return, many people have found it hard to rear their usual numbers of stock so have decided to give this year a break; this will have a direct impact on the quality and quantity of pure breed poultry at auction and in shows. This in turn will leave the spectre of extinction for many pure breeds of poultry a very real possibility.
What if the restrictions become an annual event, and what will that mean to small-scale suppliers, keepers and the show scene?
ABOVE: Show birds. The ban on poultry shows was still in place as Your Chickens went to print
TOP LEFT: A mum and her chicks. Are they safe? BOTTOM LEFT: Young birds reared by a commercial poultry breeder BOTTM RIGHT: All poultry can now be allowed outside