All poultry must be kept indoors to stifle the biggest ever bird flu outbreak sweeping the UK, officials said today amid growing fears of a Christmas turkey shortage.
Britain’s birdkeepers must keep flocks housed from November 7 ‘until further notice’, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs bosses ruled.
The legal requirement comes amid the ‘rapid escalation’ of avian influenza cases in farms and backyard birds, with the UK logging 80 cases this month alone.
The country’s top vet said the risk of avian flu to birds has ‘reached a point’ that the lockdown rules are necessary, noting that the decision has ‘not been taken lightly’.
Farmers today warned of a potential turkey shortage this Christmas as a result of the outbreak after 3.5million — nearly a third of the country’s production — were culled.
Steve Childerhouse, 51, who rears birds on his 35-acre Whews Farm, in Norfolk, said producers had been ‘absolutely hammered’ by the avian flu outbreak.
Mr Childerhouse, who had to cull his entire 10,000-strong flock, warned that families might struggle to get hold of turkeys and geese this winter as the usual stock levels are ‘just not going to be there’.
Farmer Steve Childerhouse, 51, told of his heartbreak at being forced to cull his entire flock of 10,000 turkeys destined for UK Christmas dinner tables
The UK produces roughly 11million turkeys every year, but almost a third of those – 3.5mil – have been culled due to the spread of the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus strain in 2022
From November 7, all bird keepers in Britain must follow strict measures by law to protect flocks from bird flu , including keeping free range birds in fenced areas and stringent biosecurity for staff on farms. The map shows the prevention zone (red), where mandatory housing is already in place (purple) and the areas under a 10km surveillance zone (yellow)
Bird flu outbreak: Everything you need to know
What is it?
Bird flu is an infectious type of influenza that spreads among birds.
In rare cases, it can be transmitted to humans through close contact with a dead or alive infected bird.
This includes touching infected birds, their droppings or bedding. People can also catch bird flu if they kill or prepare infected poultry for eating.
Wild birds are carriers, especially through migration.
As they cluster together to breed, the virus spreads rapidly and is then carried to other parts of the globe.
New strains tend to appear first in Asia, from where more than 60 species of shore birds, waders and waterfowl, including plovers, godwits and ducks, head off to Alaska to breed and mix with various migratory birds from the Americas. Others go west and infect European species.
What strain is currently spreading?
So far the new virus has been detected in some 80million birds and poultry globally since September 2021 — double the previous record the year before.
Not only is the virus spreading at speed, it is also killing at an unprecedented level, leading some experts to say this is the deadliest variant so far.
Millions of chickens in the UK have been culled and last November the poultry industry was put into lockdown, heavily affecting the availability of free-range eggs.
Can it infect people?
Yes, but just 864 people have been infected with H5N1 globally since 2003 from 20 countries.
The risk to people has been deemed ‘low’.
But people are strongly urged not to touch sick or dead birds because the virus is lethal, killing 53 per cent of people it does manage to infect.
Bird owners have been told to use the next week to prepare, such as by expanding housing, safeguarding animal welfare and consulting vets.
Christine Middlemiss, the UK’s chief veterinary office, said: ‘We are now facing, this year, the largest ever outbreak of bird flu and are seeing rapid escalation in the number of cases on commercial farms and in backyard birds across England.
‘The risk of kept birds being exposed to disease has reached a point where it is now necessary for all birds to be housed until further notice.
‘Scrupulous biosecurity and separating flocks in all ways, from wild birds remain the best form of defence.
‘Whether you keep just a few birds or thousands, from Monday 7 November onwards you must keep your indoors.
‘This decision has not been taken lightly, but is the best way to protect your birds from this highly infectious disease.’
Some 80 avian flu cases have been confirmed in England this month, bringing the total to 214 in the last year.
Cases have been detected in 70 premises since the beginning of October, as well as multiple reports in wild bird.
Mr Childerhouse was one of the farmers ‘absolutely hammered’ by the avian flu outbreak.
Due to the outbreak on his farm, his premises needs to be empty of birds for 12 months as a result. So he may not be able to produce any turkeys next Christmas either.
He said: ‘We are a traditional fresh farm, but even the big people are getting absolutely hammered by this. It’s affecting the whole industry.
‘We supply a lot of butchers and farm shops, and we’ve told them we haven’t got any. They’re not selling any turkeys or geese this Christmas as they can’t get them.
‘It’s going to have a massive impact on the Christmas market because they’re just not going to be there.’
The UK produces roughly 11million turkeys every year, but almost a third of those — 3.5million — have been culled due to the spread of the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus strain in 2022.
Mr Childerhouse warned farms like his wouldn’t even be able to rear birds next Christmas as his premises needs to be left empty for a 12 months following the outbreak.
He said: ‘As it stands with our farm, we won’t be able to produce any poultry on our farm for next Christmas either.
‘Because we obviously got it at the end of October, we can’t touch our buildings for 12 months — and we get our birds in June and take them through to Christmas.
‘The clean-up cost if you want to bring that forward is so expensive. We have to sit it out.’
National Union for Farmers (NFU) poultry board chair James Mottershead told MailOnline: ‘The British poultry sector has experienced a very difficult year and continues to suffer from the ongoing threat of avian influenza. We are also working against soaring energy and input costs which are impacting farms across the country.
‘Turkey producers are doing all they can to protect the health and welfare of their birds at this difficult time and are working hard to maintain production levels despite outbreaks of avian influenza, especially as we approach Christmas.
‘As avian influenza persists, vigilance is key and maintaining stringent biosecurity measures are vital for all bird keepers, whether a professional poultry farmer or someone who keeps a small number of hens in their garden.’
Evidence shows that housing birds reduces the risk of kept birds being infected with bird flu but this measure alone won’t protect the animals, Defra said.
So it has also instructed owners to follow strict biosecurity measures ‘at all times’ to protect their flocks and prevent outbreaks.
These include restricting access for non-essential people to where birds are kept to minimise the risk of cross-contamination from manure and other products.
Mr Childerhouse warned farms like his wouldn’t even be able to rear birds next Christmas as his premises needs to be left empty for a 12 months following the outbreak
Mr Childerhouse said: ‘Because we obviously got it at the end of October, we can’t touch our buildings for 12 months – and we get our birds in June and take them through to Christmas’
National Union for Farmers (NFU) poultry board chair James Mottershead said they were working hard to maintain production for this Christmas
Bird owners should also log the movements, deaths and any changes in production among their flock.
Clothing and footwear should be changed before entering enclosures and vehicles should be regularly cleaned and disinfected, Defra said.
The Avian Influenza Prevention Zone, introduced by Defra earlier this month, brought in these requirements.
Backyard owners of smaller numbers of chickens, ducks and geese must also take steps to limit the risk of the disease spreading to their flocks, they are being warned.
If birds show signs of going off their food or water, or show ‘respiratory or neurological’ signs of infection, owners should contact the Animal and Plant Health Agency or their own private vet, who would then alert the authorities.
The UK Health Security Agency said the viruses poses a ‘very low’ risk to public health.
The Food Standards Agency advised that avian influenzas pose a very low food safety risk for UK consumers. Properly cooked poultry and eggs are safe to eat, it said.
Across Europe more than 47million birds have been slaughtered to stop the outbreak.
For the first time the H5N1 bird flu virus did not die off in the summer in wild bird populations, but carried on being infectious, leading to mass die offs of birds ranging from red kites to puffins and skuas, government officials said.
Scientists think the virus has mutated in a way that makes it tougher — and survive longer in the environment on surfaces or in water — although further research is needed.