Scientists worked through the night at the United Kingdom’s (UK) Veterinary Laboratory Agency (VLA) but findings were as bad as they could be. They sent shock waves through East Anglia where the biggest and best proportion of the UK’s diverse poultry industry is located.

Free-range turkeys at Redgrave Poultry on Redgrave Park Farm on the Suffolk/Norfolk border died from the highly pathogenic H5N1 sub-type of avian influenza. Even before official announcement by acting chief veterinary officer, Fred Landeg, at a London press conference today, veterinarians in full protective gear were euthanising all 6500 birds at the farm (5000 turkeys, 1200 ducks and 400 geese). Mobile showers were installed for use by vets and other workers, and a line of covered trucks waited to take culled birds to the incinerator.

Poultry movements within a 10km radius of the farm are banned and no poultry was allowed out of a larger-than-usual restricted zone now covering the whole of the county of Suffolk and at least the southern half of Norfolk. All producers within the restricted zone including hobby farmers were instructed to lock up their birds to prevent any contact with wild birds.

Avian flu is bad at any time but H5N1 in November when millions of turkeys, geese, ducks and chickens are being fattened up for the Christmas table is a potential disaster. The birds at Redgrave Poultry were being reared for Gressingham Foods, one of the biggest poultry producers in the UK and best known for its geese with which it dominates the market and specialty ducks.

No one can accuse the authorities of not moving quickly this time. According to The Times, the alarm was raised on 11 November 2007 when 60 turkeys in a flock of 1000 were found dead. The abnormally high mortality rate aroused suspicions of the company vet, Daniel Parker, one of the leading poultry veterinarians in the UK, who recognised the likely cause as avian influenza of the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain. VLA almost immediately confirmed the H5 virus and more exactly H5N1 within 24 hours, meaning from first signs to final confirmation took just 48 hours.

This is a far cry from the UK’s first encounter with H5N1 when an infected wild swan was found (dead) on the seashore at Cellardyke in Eastern Scotland in 2006. On that occasion, it took Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 18 hours to pick up the carcass and VLA 8 days to provide full identification of the virus.