It seems like such a long time ago since it was announced that our hens would have to be kept under cover from the 14th of December. All those months ago, many of us had never experienced an Avian Influenza (HPAI) outbreak or what it was like to have to keep our lovely hens in their coop and run, under cover, and make sure that they had no contact with any wildfowl or wild bird.
For those of you that have had hens for years, you may remember the previous bird flu outbreak in the winter of 2016/17. Back then, there had been nine cases of infected premises identified. However, this current outbreak had already seen 18 separate cases across the UK within the first few months of winter. Here at the BHWT, we could see that this time around would be even more difficult, especially with the already ongoing pandemic that has plagued 2020.
Since then, our biggest question asked to us, through social media, emails and phone calls, has been “When can I let my chicken out?” “When can my girls be let into the garden” “Is there still bird flu in the UK?” This article will lay down the facts, what we know from Defra and APHA and what you need to look out for in your hens. Avian Influenza can be devastating for the commercial laying industry, it can cause farmers a lot of financial damage. But it can also devastate a domestic flock within days. This is why it is so important to keep your hens safe from wildfowl contact as well as from other infected birds.
What are the rules? How can I keep my Birds Safe?
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 and water. This housing order is a legal requirement and we encourage all new and experienced keepers to register their hens with Defra so that they will receive SMS updates on situations like Avian Influenza. You can register your hens here by filling out the voluntary poultry registration form.
Advice on how to keep your hens safe can also be found on the APHA and Defra website, as well as on our dedicated Avian Influenza page and health and welfare post. There are also many examples of what people have done on social media, showing how you can convert sheds, barns and even your conservatory into a safe hen space! But here is also a summary of the requirements to keep your hens safe outside:
- Housing or netting all poultry and captive birds to protect them from the risk of wild bird faeces getting into the run/coop.
- Cleansing and disinfecting clothing, footwear, equipment and vehicles before and after contact with poultry and captive birds – if practical, use disposable protective clothing.
- Reducing the movement of people, vehicles or equipment to and from areas where poultry and captive birds are kept, minimise contamination from manure, slurry and other products, and using effective vermin control.
- keeping fresh disinfectant at the right concentration at all points where people should use it, such as farm entrances and before entering poultry and captive bird housing or enclosures.
- Minimising direct and indirect contact between poultry and captive birds and wild birds, including making sure all feed and water are not accessible to wild birds.
What are the symptoms to look out for and what do I do if I suspect my hens have avian flu?
The main symptoms of HPAI in poultry are depression, loss of appetite, cessation of egg-laying, nervous signs, swelling and blue discolouration of combs and wattles due to disturbance of blood circulation, coughing, sneezing and diarrhoea.
Sudden death can occur without any previous signs.
Of course, these symptoms can also be seen in many other issues, so getting to the bottom of what is wrong with your hens is vital before assuming that it is Avian Influenza. Once you have confirmed that it is in fact Avian Influenza, you should contact your nearest hen friendly vet who will either visit your hens or advise on what you should do next. This should be reported as Defra also have measures to put in place to reduce the risk of spread. On their website they say:
“Where avian influenza is confirmed or suspected, we put in place restrictions on movements of birds in the area around the infected premises”
Sadly, when confirmed, the infected hens are humanly culled. This can be in commercial and domestic settings.
What do I do if I see other keepers not complying with the rules?
Another question that we get asked is what to do when people see other hen keepers not complying with the housing order rules. Maybe you have a neighbour who is still letting their hens roam freely, or you visit an allotment where hens aren’t being kept under cover. What should you do?
Sometimes just approaching said neighbour and making sure they are aware of the situation is the best thing to do. You can always guide them to our website to show them the importance of keeping hens under cover right now.
Of course, if they are aware and still do nothing about it, Avian influenza controls are enforced by your local authorities, so contacting your local council is the best way to deal with the situation.
Is there a date for the housing order to end?
Since December we have been in contact with DEFRA and APHA, keeping a close eye on when the housing order may be lifted. As of right now, there is still no certain date as to when we will be able to let our chickens out. There are still cases being monitored and prevention zones are still in force in many areas of the UK.
In early February, we were invited to attend a monthly online conference organised by DEFRA, involving key poultry stakeholders from the commercial, backyard and pet hen sectors.
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 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, do not hesitate to get in touch with our Hen Helpline for advice on what more you can do.