22 October 2017 | Online since 2003

10 August 2017

Poultry leaders call for backyard flock changes


Poultry industry leaders are calling for a change in the way small backyard flocks are dealt with during outbreaks of avian influenza.

A total of 13 outbreaks of highly pathogenic H5N8 avian influenza hit the United Kingdom between December last year and June this year as the virus spread across large parts of Europe. Six of those UK outbreaks were in backyard flocks comprising fewer than 200 birds in total, yet the affect on the commercial poultry sector has been severe, particularly on exports.

Gary Ford, the NFU's chief poultry adviser, said, "The total number of birds involved was 150. But they have had a huge impact on the commercial poultry sector." Each outbreak has resulted in strict restrictions within a 10-kilometre radius of the affected birds and exports are still being bit by the loss of the UK's disease-free status.

"As things stand at the moment, the UK will not recover its country free status until September 21," said Gary. "That means that country free status will have been lost for 10 months by the time it is lifted. That impacts on exports for the poultry meat sector. It also impacts on potential exports of end of lay birds for egg producers.

"We feel the restrictions as a result of outbreaks in backyard flocks is having a disproportionate impact on the commercial sector. Commercial units are affected both by being caught up in restrictions by being in one of the zones and also as a result of the loss of the country's AI-free status."

In a letter signed by the chairman of the NFU poultry board, Duncan Priestner, who is also chairman of the Poultry Health and Welfare Group (PHWG), chief vet Nigel Gibbens has been asked to review the country's response to outbreaks of avian influenza in backyard flocks where there is no commercial activity or links to commercial premises.

“We feel that putting in place movement restrictions around a backyard infected premise is disproportionate to the risk posed and only serves to penalise the commercial sector," he said in the letter. “We feel that a different approach to zones is necessary to help movement and to avoid trade impact, without compromising the ability to stamp out the disease.”

Gary Ford said that, currently, someone with a few hens who sold a few surplus eggs could be classed as being involved in commercial activity. "We are questioning whether that should be the case," said Gary, who said that the industry also wanted the chief vet to consider whether restrictions could be lower when only a small number of birds was involved in AI. "When we have an outbreak there is a three-kilometre protection zone and 10-kilometre surveillance zone. Could that be reduced to one kilometre when it is a small backyard flock? If the existing zones must be enforced then could they be removed more quickly for backyard flocks?"

Gary said the industry was trying to find ways of alleviating the effects on the commercial sector. He accepted that the OIE (World Organisation for Animal Health) and European Union may need to be involved in resolving the issue, but he said he believed that Nigel Gibbens "understands where we are coming from and I think he will be prepared to work with us to find a solution."

Duncan Priestner said in his letter, “The poultry industry cannot sustain this prolonged loss of trade and we fear for those companies whose income depends heavily on exports outside the EU. The impact the loss of that market has on the whole supply chain cannot be underestimated.”

Industry leaders have already met with Nigel Gibbens to discuss the issue. As well as backyard flocks, they discussed continued high standards of bio-security, licensing, virus survivability, culling and depopulation and prevention zones. Gary Ford said there needed to be a solution to the question of how backyard flocks were dealt with because avian influenza was becoming a virus that the country was going to have to learn to live with each year.

The Poultry Health and Welfare Group is calling for a new risk-based response framework to be put in place to deal with disease in backyard flocks and for the Great Britain Poultry Register threshold to be reviewed so that anything under that threshold should not be subject to the usual AI restrictions.
Many people in the industry have expressed concerns about the impact of backyard flocks on the commercial poultry sector. A housing order was enforced across the UK and other parts of Europe during the winter's AI outbreaks to try to contain the spread of the virus, but some farmers expressed frustration at what they saw as some keepers of backyard poultry failing to house their birds.

Even as the housing orders were being lifted across the UK, cases of bird flu continued to arise in small flocks during May and June. On May 4 Defra confirmed H5N8 in a small flock of chickens on a farm near Thornton in Lancashire. On May 6 AI was found in a flock of nine birds in the same region. On June 3 H5N8 was confirmed in a small flock of chickens and geese at a premises near Diss, South Norfolk. Just 35 birds were involved.


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