Caught nap­ping?

A new re­port is warn­ing that poul­try in the UK will be hard hit by the next ma­jor out­break of bird flu, not least be­cause biose­cu­rity mea­sures among hobby keep­ers is low. Char­lotte Cooper re­ports

Your Chickens - - Contents -

Chicken keep­ers and the au­thor­i­ties are not pre­pared for the ma­jor avian in­fluenza (AI) out­break that is cer­tain to hit the UK — this is the alarm­ing mes­sage con­tained in a new re­port en­ti­tled Liv­ing and Dy­ing with Avian In­fluenza.

The un­known size of the back­yard poul­try flock and pro­lif­er­a­tion of fac­tory farms are two of the big­gest dan­ger points that the UK needs to re­solve be­fore a cat­a­strophic AI out­break strikes, the au­thor of the re­port claims.

Pem­brokeshire-based Daniel Roberts, who worked in the poul­try in­dus­try for more than 15 years, penned Liv­ing and Dy­ing with Avian In­fluenza af­ter spend­ing a year study­ing bird flu in the UK and abroad, with fund­ing from a Nuffield Farm­ing Schol­ar­ship.

Mr Roberts writes: “So far the UK has swiftly iso­lated and stamped out the small num­ber of out­breaks ex­pe­ri­enced, but it is not a case of ‘if’, but ‘when’ the big one ar­rives on our shores.

“How dam­ag­ing that will be to Bri­tish cit­i­zens and in­dus­try will de­pend on tough de­ci­sions be­ing made and the will­ing­ness of the UK gov­ern­ment, poul­try in­dus­try and health of­fi­cials to face the re­al­ity that AI poses a sig­nif­i­cant threat.”


In the 2016/17 UK out­break, six of the 13 avian in­fluenza (AI) cases oc­curred in back­yard flocks. Flocks of more than 50 birds must by law be reg­is­tered with the An­i­mal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), but it is im­pos­si­ble to say how many more chick­ens there are liv­ing in smaller flocks across the UK.

AI aware­ness and biose­cu­rity mea­sures among hobby keep­ers are low and this is a ma­jor gap in the coun­try’s de­fences against the virus, Mr Roberts be­lieves.

“We need to find a so­lu­tion as to the best way to iden­tify back­yard flocks… and to en­gage with these own­ers,” he says. “Given that in the last out­break a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of out­breaks oc­curred in hobby op­er­a­tions, back­yard poul­try own­ers pose a ma­jor risk to the UK poul­try in­dus­try and pub­lic.”

Mr Roberts rec­om­mends an ap­proach sim­i­lar to the All In or All Gone cam­paign mounted by the Ge­or­gia Poul­try Fed­er­a­tion in the United States dur­ing a re­cent AI out­break. Poul­try farm­ers re­ceived weekly emails with reg­u­lar AI up­dates and had ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tional re­sources on­line.

The cam­paign also stressed that all poul­try keep­ers, whether large- or small-scale, and meat or egg pro­duc­ers, needed to unite to fight AI.

“This in­no­va­tive ex­am­ple is suc­cess­fully tack­ling is­sues across the [US poul­try] in­dus­try, in­clud­ing AI — where they were able to stop the spread of the dis­ease from other US states by en­cour­ag­ing vig­i­lance and high bio-se­cu­rity stan­dards,” writes Mr Roberts.


An­other con­cern is the fast growth of Bri­tish poul­try farm­ing. Stud­ies in China have shown that in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion in the poul­try in­dus­try is a sig­nif­i­cant con­tribut­ing fac­tor in the de­vel­op­ment of AI strains that can af­fect hu­mans — like H5N1 and H7N9.

The re­port sug­gests that we should re­view the rate at which the UK egg and broiler in­dus­tries are ex­pand­ing.

Cur­rently the UK has 644 chick­ens per square kilo­me­tre — more birds per kilo­me­tre than the US or Thai­land (200 and 530 re­spec­tively). This will rise, as the broiler in­dus­try is cur­rently in­creas­ing by 3-4% per year and free range egg pro­duc­tion by 10%.

Mr Roberts also fears that if a large-scale out­break were to hap­pen, the re­sources of De­fra, the APHA and Livetec Sys­tems (UK) — which has de­vel­oped the con­tainer­ised gassing units and ni­tro­gen foam de­liv­ery sys­tem that would be used to cull birds — would not be able to achieve the goal of de­pop­u­lat­ing an in­fected premises within 24 hours. This could also lead to wel­fare lapses, with less hu­mane culling meth­ods be­ing used.


Wild birds are the sin­gle big­gest risk of AI in­cur­sion in the UK, so the re­port sug­gests that we must mon­i­tor wild bird pop­u­la­tions to en­sure the

ear­li­est pos­si­ble de­tec­tion of avian flu.

The sit­ing of free range egg units in wet­land ar­eas, where mi­grant wild bird pop­u­la­tions are high, is an­other is­sue that needs to be con­sid­ered.

More than 50% of UK egg pro­duc­tion is free range and, ac­cord­ing to sta­tis­tics from the Bri­tish Free Range Egg Pro­duc­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, pro­duc­tion has in­creased by 10% year on year for the past three years.

The re­port rec­om­mends that plan­ning au­thor­i­ties should be in­volved in AI pre­ven­tion by lim­it­ing the num­ber of new free range units near wet­lands and even ban­ning them in some ar­eas.


Other rec­om­men­da­tions in­clude closer col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween an­i­mal and hu­man health agen­cies when pre­par­ing for AI and ar­range­ments for al­low­ing ex­ports of poul­try prod­ucts from un­af­fected premises dur­ing an out­break.

The gov­ern­ment should also in­ves­ti­gate how other coun­tries have dealt with AI and in­cor­po­rate their best prac­tice into UK plans.

Over­all, the re­port paints a bleak pic­ture of our cur­rent readi­ness for a se­ri­ous bird flu out­break, but it pro­vides a clear strat­egy for how the gov­ern­ment and poul­try keep­ers can turn this around.

As Mr Roberts states: “AI in the UK poses a greater risk to the poul­try in­dus­try than any other fac­tor, but it poses an even greater risk if we do not prop­erly pre­pare and work to­gether.”

Swab­bing to test for avian in­fluenza (AI)

The re­port’s au­thor Daniel Roberts

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