Newcastle disease (ND) is now “likely” to appear in the UK, according to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), which increased the level of risk from low to medium back in July. But for poultry keepers in Belgium it is a reality. There have been 20 outbreaks of the disease there since April — 17 among hobby keepers and three affecting commercial farmers. Hundreds of thousands of birds have been culled — around 101,000 at the three big businesses.
The respiratory virus was last seen in the UK in 2006, leading to the deaths of 13,396 game birds. Now a “particularly virulent” strain is present in mainland Europe, with cases appearing in Holland, Luxembourg and Belgium this year and France in December 2017.
The UK’s chief vet Christine Middlemiss has called for caution, saying: “I urge all poultry keepers — whether of commercial, smallholder flocks or specialist breeds or pet chickens — to remain vigilant to the clinical signs of the disease and put in place strong biosecurity measures, to ensure the welfare of their birds.”
Regulations brought in in Belgium mean that all poultry shows have been cancelled and, although rules are in place to allow commercial keepers to buy and sell stock, birds belonging to hobby keepers may not be moved.
Further outbreaks took place in May in Meix-devant-Virton, West Luxembourg, on the border with Belgium and, in March, in a backyard flock in Arnhem, Holland. Both cases are believed to be connected to the Belgian situation and were isolated quickly. There are no restrictions on chicken keepers in either country at present.
Like Belgium, but unlike the UK, all commercial poultry in Holland must be vaccinated against ND and now Dutch hobby keepers are being advised to vaccinate their birds. Raole Koole of the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality said that they were vigilant, but did not expect another outbreak. And Theo Schmitz of the Union of Poultry Societies of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg said that his members were receiving good information from their authorities and were not too concerned.
However, protection and surveillance zones are in place across Belgium, meaning life is quite difficult for poultry keepers. The most recent outbreak was in a hobby flock in Momignies, Hainaut, on 31 July.
Els De Saveur runs The Ark, a farm animal sanctuary in Polare, East Flanders — around 10km from an outbreak that occurred at a poultry breeders in Haaltert on 4 July.
The Ark organises the rehoming of hundreds of battery chickens each year, but Els has not been able to take in any birds since the restrictions started in July and she says that it is heartbreaking knowing birds are going to slaughter that she could be saving.
She said: “We take in chickens when they are written off by egg businesses. They are just a year old and they recuperate here before being adopted. However, as a sanctuary we are classed as hobby keepers, so while the big companies can continue their businesses there are still restrictions on us, meaning that we cannot rescue or rehome any poultry. We are getting emails every day from people wanting to take on chickens, but we have to tell them no.
“Luckily the restrictions came in just as we were about to go on holiday, so we had no new hens, but we normally take them in in batches of 260. This means that we do not have many hens here and we have not had to change our biosecurity or routines too much.
“We also rescue other farmyard birds, such as geese and ducks, and we are unable to respond to calls to help them either currently.”
Els added that the worst part is that there is no end in sight. “We are not getting any information from our government about when the restrictions will be lifted.”
Dorine Van Geert, a spokesperson for the Belgian government, confirmed that the emergency measures banning the sale and movement of poultry by backyard keepers introduced on 2 July were extended indefinitely on 1 August.
The outbreak in Haaltert was at the premises of Poultry Schouppe De Nul of Haaltert, a small business selling pure bred and hybrid layers to backyard keepers. Its doors were closed for six weeks and more than 3,000 of its birds were culled, but the company reopened for business on 10 August.
“We have received a great deal of support from our customers. Thanks to them, we have the courage to continue,” said owner Rosette De Nul. “Emotionally it has been particularly tough. I hatched many of the chickens and that creates a special bond. The whole issue remains a scar that I hope will heal in time, but at least it is good to hear them clucking again.”
With no further cases for a month, the Belgian authorities believe that the outbreak may soon be at an end, but British keepers need to remain on their guard against Newcastle Disease.
Newcastle Disease was first identified in the British city of Newcastle in 1927
Belgium has seen 20 outbreaks of Newcastle Disease since April
Els De Saveur, who runs The Ark animal sanctuary in East Flanders, says that poultry cannot currently be rescued or rehomed