Paul Kelly spells the way forward for Christmas turkeys

Paul Kelly spells out the way forward for Christmas turkeys.

A five-point strategy to save the future of traditional free range Christmas turkeys has been advocated by one of the leading producers, Paul Kelly. The avian influenza (AI) outbreak has led to over 500,000 free range turkeys this year through infection or culling--and many farmers who supply this market will be reluctant to risk losing a flock next year and incurring huge financial losses.

Kelly, who also has a hatchery supplying day-old turkey poults to more than one third of these farmers, shares their concerns about the risks involved in producing free range poultry without firm assurance about its viability. "We have been battling AI for over 20 years and the policy of trying to stamp out the disease has not worked. Most countries are now discussing vaccination as the only credible way forward. We have lost the war.

"I liken the situation to the Zero Tolerance policy for covid in China. They are fighting a force of nature that most experts think they cannot win, and it seems their government has now at last realized that locking down the population to eliminate the disease does not work. We have the added disadvantage that we cannot lock down wild birds that are the primary source of infection.

"Talking to people in the know, it would seem there are vaccines available that would be very effective and, given the green light, they could be produced very quickly. So, firstly, we need to get vaccine approval fast tracked--just as we did with the covid vaccines. The vaccine program need only be for highly susceptible poultry such as turkeys, ducks and geese, or used in geographical areas deemed as high risk. Secondly, monitoring these vaccinated flocks could be carried out by private veterinary practices to test and check that flocks are not carrying a field strain of the virus. The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) would not therefore need any extra resource."

Thirdly, Kelly calls for a proper financial compensation scheme: "Christmas poultry producers will have to make some big decision at the beginning of 2023. In the absence of being able to vaccinate and also a compensation scheme fit for purpose, will they risk growing turkeys in 2023? Many small independent producers have been wiped out and the larger companies that have had infected premises will have had big losses." 

Fourthly, he calls for a more consistent and practical approach to the cleaning and disinfecting of premises. "This can be a nightmare for many if the case officer is not as practical and pragmatic as they could be. We all want to make sure infected premises are free of the virus. But some of the requirements can be interpreted in a ridiculous way that adds huge, unnecessary cost to the clean out. I have colleagues who are pulling their hair out with what the Environment Agency is stipulating. Cleaning a shed is a pretty basic and simple process. APHA guidelines are open to interpretation and need to be made as simple, and not as complicated, as possible. For example, to clean a range by taking six inches of top soil off an entire field is not viable or indeed necessary. This was actually suggested by one case officer."

 His final point concerns the current 12-month resting period. "This needs to be addressed urgently to allow seasonal producers to get back into production. Research shows the virus survives for up to six weeks outside of the host--so why do we need to rest the site for 12 months? We need a science-based approach--not a figure that is plucked out of the air."

Kelly says the lack of a new approach to avian flu threatens the future of the traditional free range turkey on Christmas dinner tables. 

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