22 September 2017 | Online since 2003

8 February 2017

Calls to ban producers selling end of lay hens to backyard keepers


Concern is growing about the potential threat to the poultry industry from backyard flocks, following confirmation of two outbreaks in small flocks.

High risk H5N8 was found in a flock of flock of 17 chickens and ducks near Settle in North Yorkshire in January. Just days earlier the same virus was confirmed in backyard chickens and ducks in Carmarthenshire. It is the same strain of the virus found on three turkey farms in Lincolnshire, in farmed pheasants in Preston, Lancashire and the same one that has been circulating in continental Europe. H5N8 has also been found in wild birds in various parts of the United Kingdom.

Poultry farmers are worried that some people who keep backyard hens may not be complying with the housing order declared by the chief veterinary officer in December and that this could risk spreading the virus. Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom has warned that all poultry keepers must follow the rules and NFU president Meurig Raymond has called for action against anyone found to be breaking the order. Robert Gooch, chief executive of the British Free Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA) has also expressed his concern about backyard flocks.

"It is disappointing that so few backyard flocks appear to be following the requirements of the protection zone," said Robert. "We keep making the point to Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs). We will keep pressing that," said Robert, who said that producers' livelihoods could be put at risk.

Andrea Leadsom told the Ranger it was important that bio-security measures were enforced by all poultry keepers, including those with backyard flocks. "Obviously really key to this is bio-security, as well, but you're right that smallholders must also take account of the instructions from the chief vet on the housing order," said the Secretary of State in response to a question from the Ranger. "We do encourage everybody, no matter how big or small their holding is, to actually look carefully at the advice and to follow it to the letter."

The Secretary of State confirmed that a housing order, which was issued on December 6 for the whole of the United Kingdom, would now be extended until the end of February. The extension will run until the end of the 12-week period beyond which birds will lose their free range status if they continue to be housed.

NFU president Meurig Raymond said he was very concerned about the threat posed to the poultry sector by some backyard poultry keepers. "The message went out that poultry keepers should keep their birds indoors," he said. "I believe that a lot of these smaller flocks are being kept indoors but I also know that some are not. So when they have poultry running in the wild then there is always a risk of further disease outbreak, so it is imperative that these people listen to the advice and do house their poultry in the weeks ahead. They are mostly vulnerable to the AI."

The NFU president said that if some people continued to flout the order then the Government should be prepared to take action against them. "I would hope that the Government - the Welsh Government in this instance - are delivering some pretty strong messages on this. I believe that if people are caught disobeying the rules then they ought to be reprimanded. They pose a huge risk to the poultry industry at this time," he said.

Highly pathogenic avian influenza appears to be a growing threat to the poultry industry worldwide. An AI epidemic in the United States wiped out massive numbers of birds, there have been serial outbreaks in France over the last year and in the last couple of months the H5N8 virus has been found in numerous countries across Europe. The United Kingdom followed other European Union states in ordering that free range birds should be housed as a precaution against the spread of the virus.

Meurig Raymond said that bird keepers who ignored Government orders were running the risk of making matters worse. "Obviously it's being transmitted through wild birds. The AI virus is within those birds, it spreads, so bio-security is going to be so important. There is no sector within British farming that's more professional than the poultry sector. The birds are housed, they've heeded the information from Government, so it is important that the smaller flocks - the hobby farm type flocks - heed that advice as well to safeguard this important industry."

He said, "We must keep driving the message that people have to take heed of that information and that advice. Otherwise we may have to consider why are people keeping half a dozen chickens in the back yard. Again, these could be a huge threat to the poultry industry."

Former BFREPA chairman John Retson, a longstanding critic of backyard hens, told the Ranger, "I have spent years working through the NFU, BFREPA and BEIC (British Egg Industry Council), saying how big a threat backyard poultry keepers are to the national flock. I know in Scotland they think they are exempt from the rules sanctioned by Defra. They think they don't have to shut birds in."

John raised the issue of spent hens being sold to backyard keepers at the end of their commercial lives. He said that, aside from the risk of selling birds to keepers who may subsequently pose an AI risk, there was a financial argument against doing so. "Why sell spent hens for a quid to someone who is going to stick a board up offering eggs for sale," said John. He said he would have no objection to backyard flocks if they were to abide by the same rules as everyone else.

Another former chairman, Myles Thomas, said he thought the Lion code should possibly include a rule preventing the sale of end of lay birds to backyard keepers. "I understand why people might want to do this but it could have serious implications for the poultry industry," said Myles.

"If those hens go to someone locally and AI breaks out, you may find yourself in a protection zone unable to send your eggs to your packer. That could be a disaster."

Myles said he also thought that no-one working on a poultry farm should have domestic poultry.

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