Home on the (free) range this Easter

April 13, 2017

Avian flu has been tough on our farmers. Find out more about the difficulties of rearing poultry whilst restrictions have been in place.

Last Autumn, DEFRA announced cases of avian influenza at farms in the UK. Bird flu is a virus that spreads from wild birds particularly from migrating birds arriving on our shores. Outbreaks of what DEFRA call subtype H5N8 were found in poultry and wild birds in countries across Europe.

Chief Veterinary Officer Nigel Gibbens said: "The Government has taken swift action to limit the spread of the disease, with restrictions around affected premises and wider measures in place across the country.

"To reduce the risk of bird flu spreading from bird to bird there is currently a legal requirement for all poultry keepers to keep their birds housed or otherwise separate from wild birds.

"Bird flu is also transmitted via the environment, for example in wild bird droppings, and it is vital that keepers practice strict biosecurity. This means taking precautions such as putting up netting, keeping food and water inside and disinfecting footwear and equipment after contact with birds."

The Food Standards Agency said bird flu does not pose a food safety risk for UK consumers.  You cannot catch Bird flu from eating cooked eggs or poultry.

Our farmers have had to take extra biosecurity steps, including: minimising direct and indirect contact between poultry or other captive birds and wild birds, and making sure that feed and water can’t be accessed by wild birds.

They were told to keep their birds inside for 30 days or keep them away from wild birds. Unless they have large cages, most farmers including those who sell at our markets were forced to keep their birds in their bird housing or barns. Everyone was hoping that the measures would be lifted in March.

Lainchbury chickens in field 2015 March

Nigel Witt farms near Southampton. He keeps 3500 hen in groups of 700. Currently temporarily housed in large barns, the hens have been given lots of toys to play with. Nigel is relieved that customers seem happy and understand the situation. Meantime he’s waiting patiently for DEFRA to allow them to turn their birds out onto the fields.

Brambletye’s hens are usually free ranging around their farms orchards all day. Currently they’re kept inside in groups of 500. Stein Leanders can’t wait for the restrictions to be lifted. He said;

‘’In in the first few weeks the chickens dropped production as they were being kept in and started to moult and grow new feathers.
We have communicated to our customers the issues at hand and they keep supporting us and regularly ask about how its going.’’

Having thir hens indoors for the last 3 months means that Brambletye have surrendered their Demeter (biodynamic) licence.

Stein is looking forward to the restrictions being lifted; ‘’We have had to introduce lighting and we hope that the quality will improve in the coming weeks.’’

In January the measures were extended for another month. At the end of February some areas were freed from restrictions, whilst other Higher Risk Areas continue to have bio security conditions in place.  DEFRA says:  

‘‘These are generally areas near where wild birds (and in particular gulls and wild waterfowl) gather, such as lakes, marshes or estuaries.’’

You may find that some of our farmers have their chickens back out on grass while some are continuing to keep their poultry indoors.

The Prevention Zones help reduce the risk of poultry coming into contact with wild birds which that could carry the virus, or with their droppings. They also reduce the potential for any food or water that poultry use to become contaminated by wild birds. Even when birds are housed there is still a risk of infection, which is why there is an ongoing need for good biosecurity.

Fosse Meadows usually keep their 350 laying hens in small sheds with fields for ranging. Over the last few month whilst the birds have been indoors, they’ve added more enrichment in the shed during bird flu lock down
Keeping optimistic, Jacob Sykes said; The birds have been locked up in the coldest windiest months which if its going to happen is the best time, but they won't have had such a natural life for the time they've been in.
He added ‘Customers have remained loyal and understanding, the egg quality has remained high’

Fosse Meadow chicken

Tim Norris of Harvest Moon has 4,800 hens.  Usually the birds have access to pasture from 9.00 a.m. until dusk, when they return to roost.  Whilst the restrictions were in place his chickens had no access to pasture, and Tim made the chicken houses more interesting for the chickens to live in, they had more straw bedding to promote scratching, toys such as reflective CDs, hanging plastic milk bottles to make a good sound when pecked,  more frequent change of bedding, increase of ventilation, increased flock surveillance and higher level of bio security.

Tim has noted that when the hens are unable to selectively graze   ‘’They become more stressed, the air gets staler more quickly and in cold weather humid air will condense on cold surfaces causing damp bedding.’’  He noticed a decline in egg numbers, putting it down to the abrupt changes in the hens’ routine.

Tims’ chickens are now out ranging again with DEFRA's approval.  As of the 4th April, the Prevention Zones remain in place. Thank you for understanding and asking questions.  This Easter when you’re eating your eggs, spare a thought for our hard working farmers giving top priority to the welfare of their birds.

Harvest Moon eggs