DEFRA invites us to their conference on Avian Influenza: “What the spread of AI could look like for backyard birds”

2020 will always be remembered as the year we stayed at home. Little did we realise that our chickens would end the year sharing in our confinement, after DEFRA issued a compulsory housing order, compelling us to keep our birds indoors if possible. Some people have questioned the need for our birds to be locked in but it is the only way that we can be sure the spread of the current outbreak of Avian Influenza (AI) will be stopped in its tracks.

The UK has been AI free since 2017 but in November 2020 the arrival of wild migratory birds and waterfowl heralded a new series of outbreaks. Currently, there is no vaccination for AI in poultry, and in most instances infected birds will die quickly, effectively halting the virus when a small back garden flock is involved. However, the impact on the British poultry and egg industry is massive and once the virus gains entry to a commercial unit the results can be devastating.

In November the UK’s Chief Veterinary Officer, Christine Middlemiss, confirmed that the highly pathogenic H5N8 had been found in non-migratory wild birds.

During this current outbreak, we have seen 18 cases so far with only half the winter gone. Compare this to the 2016/17 epidemic when only nine infected premises were identified throughout the whole winter.

In order to halt the spread of the disease, the English, Scottish and Welsh governments implemented a compulsory housing order requiring all poultry keepers to implement strict biosecurity measures, and where possible, keep their birds undercover and away from wild birds which may try to share their food.

Last week we were invited to attend an online conference organised by DEFRA, involving key poultry stakeholders from the commercial, backyard and pet hen sectors. DEFRA has confidence in our common-sense approach to rehoming hens, and we are always keen to help and support our fellow poultry keepers, whether they be on a commercial or back garden scale.

During the meeting, our earlier decision to temporarily stop rehoming hens during the outbreak was applauded, as was our assistance in distributing information to our supporters. Approximately 70 delegates attended and discussed the over-riding concern of the danger of the highly pathogenic strain becoming endemic in the domestic non-migratory wild bird population, which would give the disease a permanent foothold in the country. This would mean that AI would no longer be tied to the waterfowl migration season and instead be here permanently. It remains to be seen how this would impact domestic pet hen keepers and the industry as a whole, but if this were to happen it would seriously affect the way we rehome hens across the UK.

Because of this we must understand the importance of keeping backyard and commercial hens safe, by keeping them away from wild birds, and ultimately eradicating AI from the UK this winter/spring. We are continuing to stay in close contact with DEFRA in order to gauge the situation over the coming months.

We know many of you have gone above and beyond to keep your hens safe and we applaud your resilience. We understand that it is hard to keep your birds inside but winter is not yet over and we must continue to fight AI. For more information on what you can do, check out our website updates or get in touch with our Hen Helpline for advice on what you can do.

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