Anyone who keeps poultry will have had to undertake measures to meet the requirements of the DEFRA Prevention Zone restrictions against the avian flu strain H5N8 last winter. This caused quite a bit of inconvenience and for commercial producers a real worry for their businesses. For some smallholders with perhaps 20, 30, 40 or 50 birds, having to confine them, especially if you had no suitable outbuilding available, involved some rather makeshift solutions. For commercial producers with many thousands of birds they were confined to large barns. The birds were not very happy and resulted in lower egg laying rates, and for poultry keepers it involved much more mucking out and increased feed consumption as their birds were no longer able to range about.
The restrictions were first imposed at the beginning of December 2016 initially for a period of 12 weeks. This time period was significant because producers marketing free range eggs or poultry meat are allowed to keep their hens indoors for a maximum continuous period of 12 weeks if they wish to retain their free range status (and consequent price premium). In localities where there were recorded outbreaks, Surveillance Zones were imposed with more stringent restrictions. In the event, in February 2017 the Prevention Zone restrictions were extended for a further 12 week period. Some free range egg producers had to re-label their eggs 'barn produced' as a result. On 13th April the legal restrictions were lifted but good practices in bio-security continued to be strongly advised for all poultry keepers.
The restrictions legislated for were basically to keep all poultry indoors or if that was not possible to provide enclosed, netted runs to keep wild fowl separate, and to ensure food and water was kept under cover. DEFRA approved disinfectant for footwear wash, clothing and vehicles on entering areas where poultry are kept were rquired and 'poultry gatherings' (such as shows or auctions) were banned.
There was some debate about the effectiveness of such measures in preventing the spread of outbreaks of avian flu and it was evident that many 'backyard' poultry keepers simply ignored the regulations despite the threat of a £5000 fine or even imprisonment. In practice it would have been difficult for DEFRA to monitor effectively compliance.
A total of 13 outbreaks of avian influenza were recorded in the UK flocks between December last year and June this year of the 1000 or so outbreaks in Europe. Six of those UK outbreaks were in 'backyard' flocks comprising fewer than 200 birds. One of the problems with this is that a 10 kilometre Surveillance Zone with much stricter regulatory requirements were imposed which might then impact on commercial producers caught up within this radius.
Even if there are doubts about the effectiveness of avian flu restrictions, and whatever views may be held regarding intensive production systems, I think it is important that smallholders and other small scale poultry keepers demonstrate a responsible approach (and also keep within the law) and adhere to any regulations and guidance. DEFRA has provided some updated guidance for backyard poultry keepers:-
Why am I bringing this all up now? Well the migratory season for wild birds is nearly upon us again and the east coast and the fens of East Anglia are particularly exposed. After some time of no new outbreaks of avian flu, on 7th August a mute swan in Norfolk was found to be affected. My suspicion is that DEFRA will err on the side of caution if there are further outbreaks in the autumn and restrictions might then be re-imposed. Bear in mind also Brexit negotiations and alternative trade discussions are underway and there is a good chance DEFRA will want to re-establish and then maintain country free status currently due to be re-instated from September 21st and there will be strong commercial pressure to protect the poultry industry and export potential.
I'm by nature an optimistic individual but this does not prevent me from being prepared for future reasonable risks. Therefore I have been spending time this summer constructing a much larger netted run area than time allowed to be put in place for the last outbreak. At the moment my egg laying hens have about a quarter of an acre to roam in. In December 2016 we only had a matter of days notice to have appropriate measures in place. If needs must then I'll already be set up for any future confinement.