18 August 2018 | Online since 2003

21 February 2007

Clock ticking on ‘indoor’ free range

Over 100,000 free range layers risk losing their free range status if Defra fails to stamp out the outbreak of bird flu in Suffolk.

The order to house flocks within the 3km protection zone, the 10km surveillance zone and much wider restricted zone came on the Saturday Defra vets confirmed the H5N1 virus on a Bernard Mathews turkey rearing site at Holton.

Under EU rules eggs from housed flocks can be sold as free range for a period of 12 weeks, after which they lose their marketing status. But for eggs, unlike poultry meat, the 12 weeks does not start counting down from the day of the confinement order, instead requiring a ministerial decision to invoke the derogation. That took place the following Friday when farming minister Jeff Rooker signed the declaration, meaning free range status will be maintained for affected flocks until 4 May.

The majority of the flocks caught up in the outbreak supply Deans through the Deans Countryside group, which is coordinated by BFREPA council member Jeff Vergerson. He told the Ranger that they had seven farms in the 2,000sq.km restricted zone and one farm in the surveillance zone where restrictions are tighter.

"Clearly the 12 week rule is a concern but the first consideration has been to ensure that the welfare of the housed flocks has not been compromised," said Jeff. "So far we do not appear to have had any major difficulties on that front."

Deans Countryside producers affected by the shut-in order were issued with an 18-point plan by the company containing advice on managing flocks that were no longer allowed outside. High up on the list of recommendations was to make the litter area as attractive as possible by keeping it friable and adding additional litter.

Other advice included giving the birds electrolytes or soluble vitamins for the first five days; reducing the light intensity if the birds became agitated; regularly inspecting the birds and closely observing their behaviour; and giving a scratch feed on the litter during the afternoon. Another tip was to reduce the level of the feed in the chain feeder and run it more frequently.

One producer on the receiving end of the advice was Philip Vincent whose farm lies approximately 10 miles from the scene of the outbreak. At 51 weeks old his 12,000 birds had developed an established ranging habit which meant that sudden confinement left them agitated.

"The worse time has been in the morning because they would normally be let out by 9.00am," said Philip. "They have been crowding behind the popholes but we haven't lost any to smothering."

Philip has placed sections of straw bales down the scratch area which has helped keep the birds occupied and he says by each afternoon the flock has settled down again. "Every day that goes by they seem less agitated in the mornings and there's been a gradual reduction in the number of hens queuing up behind the closed popholes."

He does report, however, a slight dip in egg production of around one per cent.

Nearby are BFREPA members John and Sue Elsden. They've recently sunk more money into their free range operation, expanding the house from 12,000 to 16,000 birds, and an outbreak of bird flu on their doorstep was not the news they wanted.

"It is a worry and we just have to hope that Defra can keep it contained and stop any spread. It is early days but the signs look good so far," said John.

At 30 weeks old, the Elsden's birds hadn't been ranging for too many weeks but nevertheless had begun to enjoy their excursions on the range, only to be denied them abruptly.

"Fortunately we have seen no real behavioural problems," John told the Ranger. "We put them on multi-vits straightway and spread fresh litter which has helped keep them busy."

Deans has managed to keep the eggs flowing from the affected farms—carried out under special license—and producers appear satisfied with the biosecurity arrangements.

Collection lorries have to adhere to a specific order of pick-ups and follow a disinfection routine at both farm and packing centre. Drivers are putting on disposable overalls at each farm and producers are being issued with either washed plastic trays or new fibre trays.

For the one farm caught up in the surveillance zone, whilst the eggs could have been taken to a packing centre—albeit under stricter licensing rules—Deans took the decision to send them straight for processing to minimise any risk. The producer is being compensated for the eggs' loss of value.

As for the prospect of flocks losing their free range status, that was a worry but Jeff Vergerson was reasonably confident that it would not come to that.

"Assuming there are no further outbreaks and the clean-up process goes as planned all restrictions should be lifted well within the 12 week period and the birds can be let back out again," said Jeff.

Clearly the prospect of barn egg prices for free range has massive implications for producers.

"It just cannot be allowed to come to that—we simply wouldn't survive," says Philip Vincent.

As reported in last month's Ranger, European egg producers, represented by EUWUP, are lobbying EU officials for a change in the rules to allow eggs to retain their free range status for an indefinite period during a shut-in, even if it meant giving birds access to verandas.
The cost of an outbreak
Simon Dann is only too aware of how much an outbreak of avian influenza can cost. His two free range flocks, totalling 16,000 birds, were slaughtered last April after they proved positive for a low pathogenic strain of the virus. A costly clean-up of the farm followed under the watchful eye of Defra vets, most of it paid for by Mr Dann.

In addition to the clean-up costs, Mr Dann estimates that with the loss of earnings from the two flocks along with the wages paid to his stockmen while the units were out of operation, even after taking into account a cheque from Defra for £19,000 for the value of the slaughtered birds, his cashflow deficit is still in excess of £40,000.

Despite this setback, Mr Dann has not lost his sense of humour, telling the Ranger that only last month he received notification from the Health Protection Agency that he and his staff had tested clear for the bird flu virus from blood samples taken last May.

"That was a comfort," said Mr Dann.


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