Bird flu, or avian flu, is an infectious type of influenza that spreads among birds. Bird flu mostly spreads from bird to bird through contact with infected saliva, nasal secretions or droppings. There are lots of different strains of bird flu virus, however, most of them don't have any effect on human health.
The current strain of bird flu that has been devastating our wild bird populations in the UK since November 2021 originated in poultry operations in China in 1996 and then spread to wild birds.
The first signs came when Great Skuas were dying and testing positive for HPAI across islands in Scotland in 2021. That winter, on the Solway Firth, bird flu killed a third of the breeding population of Barnacle Geese (more than 16,000 birds).
Since then, with more frequency than ever before, poultry farmers have been asked to move their birds indoors by Defra in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus. Farmers across England were forced once again in November to move their birds indoors, with Wales following suit in November. All of Scotland has been under preventative measures since December.
The most recent series of bird flu outbreaks is unprecedented, it’s the largest ever in the UK (and worldwide) and has killed tens of thousands of birds this year alone.
The outbreak has led to the death of 97 million birds globally (3.8 million in the UK). So far, nearly 70 UK bird species have tested positive for avian flu, including seabirds (Gannet, Atlantic Puffin, Razorbill, gulls and terns), chickens, turkeys, geese, ducks, swans and raptors.
According to Prof Ian Brown, scientific services director at the Animal and Plant Health Agency, the H5N1 virus behind avian flu, has changed to make it more easily carried by gulls. Gulls present a particular risk because they are present everywhere across the UK, from inland farms to the most remote seabird colonies. This means that they can spread the illness between domesticated populations and wild ones.
Industry and government officials are feverishly working on getting this latest outbreak under control. A vaccine for poultry is under development, the idea being that it would be consumed by chickens through their feed. However, just like the development of other vaccines, there is no clarity on when it is likely to complete regulatory testing.
There are other glimmers of hope on the horizon too. Recent testing has uncovered some birds are developing natural immunity to some strains of influenza. Both British chickens and Polish geese have shown that they can recover from catching the disease, which up until now, it had been understood that bird flu was unsurvivable by poultry.
There has also been a rollback on the assumption that if one shed of birds has caught the disease, then the rest of the farm will also catch it. Again, testing has shown that this isn’t necessarily the case, which is giving farmers some optimism during this difficult time.
Whilst bird flu is causing a horrific impact on wild birds and farmed poultry, it is also causing significant strain on small-scale farming communities up and down the country, whose businesses and livelihoods are at stake. Currently, the government compensation for confirmed cases of bird flu is £3.50, which is generous for those rearing industrialized poultry (usually sold at around £2.80 - £3.00 per bird). For Free Range and Organic farmers, where a ‘finished bird’ costs in the region of £11 to produce, this goes nowhere near protecting them from going under. Once again the Government’s policy is geared towards large-scale corporations and is leaving the independent small-scale farmer under increasing threat.
Not only is there a greater risk for small-scale farmers currently, but costs have also increased exponentially. As Free Range birds are now inside, they are not grazing and eating pasture as part of their diet, this means they are consuming more feed than they usually would. Couple that with increasing costs from changing straw bedding more frequently and increased labour to look after the birds, all of the challenges combined are creating a perfect storm for our British poultry producers.
APHA and DEFRA are currently meeting every fortnight to review and discuss the ongoing situation, but there is little hope at present, that restrictions are going to ease any time soon. Avian flu has always been more catastrophic during winter months, just like our cold and flu season. With spring on the horizon, we hope there will be some good news soon for our nation's poultry.
Avian Flu and Labelling
DEFRA have recognised some of the challenges facing British poultry farmers, one of which is consumer labelling. With birds having been housed since November, many farmers have struggled to understand complicated rules around what to label their birds. DEFRA has now stepped in and put in place a concession which means poultry reared for meat (hens raised for eggs have their own set of rules) can still be labelled as free range as long as the following has been adhered to:
Poultry must be slaughtered under 12 weeks of age (most Free Range poultry is slaughtered between 8-12 weeks)
Poultry must be fed a corn-based diet
There must be a maximum space requirement of 27.5kg/square metre (this is approximately 9 chickens per square metre)
Sheds must contain a minimum of 3% of windows to allow in natural light and ventilation.
What are We Doing at Pipers Farm
Like all poultry producers, we want to see an end to restrictions as soon as it is safe to do so. In the meantime, we are adhering to the government’s stipulations above.
Alongside this, we have been carefully monitoring the ratio of our poultry to keep them in optimum condition. We have undertaken weekly testing of our feed to ensure our birds are not overfed as they are undertaking less exercise than they usually would. In intensive poultry systems, birds are pumped full of food creating a faster-growing, bloated bird. Our birds are naturally designed to want to move around and so getting the balance of what they are consuming right is of paramount importance to us.
Thankfully our farmer has invested in new sheds which are providing a light, roomy solution to the current challenge. The sheds are a vital component in the heath of a bird. If sheds are not in good condition and they are too cold and drafty, the birds will eat more, causing a health risk. If sheds are not properly ventilated and allowed to get too warm, then this causes further complications for their health.
We are changing bedding regularly to keep our birds contented in their environment, allowing them to scratch and dig as they would normally in the pasture. In some of our sheds, where space is allowed, we have added straw bales for birds to climb and peck.
Is There a Risk to Human Health?
Avian flu is not new; epidemiologists have been studying it for decades. Over the years there have been a small number of cases where humans have caught the virus. There are many strains of avian influenza, however, there are only 4 strains that have been known to impact human health. It is still incredibly rare for humans to catch the disease. It is even less likely for humans to become carriers or spread the disease.
Avian influenza viruses infect birds by attaching to a receptor in their respiratory tract. In order for the virus to become a human virus and start circulating from person to person in the population, it would have to be able to attach itself to the human version of this receptor - something it hasn’t yet evolved to do.
More worryingly than any remote threat to human health, is the potential threat to wildlife. Minks in Spain, seals in Scotland and dolphins in South America; a number of mammal species have recently been found to be infected with H5N1, a highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza. The detection of the virus in mammals has many concerns about the potential loss of our wild species, which already face many threats from intensive farming.
As this situation is ever-evolving, we will continue to bring you updates as and when changes occur. This article is correct as of 3rd March 2023.