Avian influenza and the risk from backyard flocks

Backyard flocks, when not properly managed, represent a disease risk to the wider poultry industry, particularly when in contact with wild birds and when avian influenza viruses are circulating.

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Kate Childers, Freeimages.com
Kate Childers, Freeimages.com

Poultry owners big and small in the U.K. have been ordered to keep their birds indoors, or take other appropriate steps, to keep them separate from wild birds.

The measure is simply precautionary -- a response to the increased risk from avian influenza viruses circulating in several European countries.

The H5N8 virus detected in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Poland, among others, has not spread to the U.K., but it easily could via wild birds, and the U.K., Scottish and Welsh governments are taking no chances. Migratory birds, it seems, have been paying little attention to Brexit and it is not disrupting their travel plans.

The order, due to initially last for 30 days, has been welcomed by farming bodies. They recognize the need to protect bird health, particularly in the run-up to Christmas, which is a crucial time of year for many poultry producers.

So I was somewhat dismayed last weekend to hear of some friends of friends who have said they will have to keep their four hens in their bedroom.

Suburban danger

As is increasingly popular in the U.K., this couple have a few hens, I assume in their back garden, and they must now go indoors. I have no idea where these birds usually go at night or in harsh weather, but into their owners’ bedroom they now will go.

A quick call to my sister revealed that her neighbor’s hen is still out and about foraging in the garden and that it is simply put into a wire cage near the house at night – so no biosecurity there.

While large-scale farming is all too often criticized, one thing is for sure: It more often than not can access know-how and resources, something the above-mentioned owners, it would appear, cannot.

How long will the owners of the four hens put up with them in their house or apartment?

And where my sister and her neighbor are concerned, they live near a wide river with all sorts of waterfowl coming and going from and to who knows where.

Even keepers of very small numbers of hens are subject to rules and regulations, but whether they know what there rules are, or abide by them, is a different matter.

Hidden threat

And while the U.K.’s veterinary authorities have said they will step up disease surveillance for avian influenza, it is doubtful they have the resources, or the information, to check on every pet chicken in the land.

Keeping a few chickens in the back garden may be very nice, but how responsible it really is raises questions.

We all know diseases can have a devastating impact, not only where the birds themselves are concerned, but also in terms of business survival. And let us not forget that, in the end, the consumer pays a higher price too, when new sources have to be found.

Every poultry owner needs to play their part to stop migratory birds from infecting farmed birds, and if you can’t do that, for whatever reason, perhaps you should not own hens, no matter how nice it may be to collect a few eggs from the garden.

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