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
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 BIRD THREAT
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.
THE KEY IS CLOSE COLLABORATION
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