Poultry keepers across England, Scotland and Wales are facing tough new lockdown-style measures on their farms to control the spread of bird flu.
It follows outbreaks of a “highly pathogenic” H5N8 strain of bird flu in Cheshire, Devon, Gloucestershire and Hertfordshire over the past two weeks. The outbreaks have been found in wild bird populations and two broiler chicken farms, where all the birds are being culled.
Farmers are required to restrict access for non-essential people, remove sources of wild bird food and ensure workers are regularly disinfecting footwear and changing clothes. Those found to not be complying face up to three months in prison or unlimited fines, according to the measures announced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
UK and European farmers have been on alert after outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza among wild and domestic birds in western Russia and Kazakhstan. When bird flu was detected in the same area of Russia in the summers of 2005 and 2016, epidemics followed in northern and eastern Europe.
However, the speed of the spread of outbreaks in Europe over the past few weeks has caught the industry by surprise, with hundreds of thousands of birds culled after multiple outbreaks across Germany and the Netherlands.
Thousands of dead wild birds were also reportedly found on the north-west coast of Germany last week, most likely infected with bird flu.
British Poultry Council chief executive Richard Griffiths said bird flu was a “significant threat to the commercial poultry industry” and he supported new restrictive measures to minimise the risk of a larger and wider outbreak.
“It is an incredibly difficult situation for farmers and producers if they get a case of avian influenza (AI), so the controls and their costs are made to be as fair as they can be. For instance, farmers are compensated for the culling of healthy birds as part of AI controls. The system is as fair as it possibly can be, given the nature of the situation.”
During the last significant bird flu outbreak in 2016/17, there was also a ban on keeping poultry outdoors. Defra said this was not being considered at present, but would be if the outbreak spread further.
Public Health England (PHE) advises that the risk to public health from the virus is very low and that properly cooked poultry and poultry products, including eggs, are safe to eat.
PHE said: “Our advice regarding contact with wild birds remains the same – make sure to wash your hands thoroughly with soap after coming into contact with any animal and do not touch any sick or dead birds.”
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