Avian influenza ‘remains a threat’, warns government

With the summer months winding down, poultry-keepers are being warned to take action now to prevent the risk of avian influenza (AI). 

Ahead of the autumn migration of ducks and geese this winter, chief veterinarians in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the UK have issued tips on preventing the threat of disease.

In the previous winter, the H5N8 strain of bird flu was found in 13 flocks of poultry in the UK, with a flock of up to 65,000 birds among those contaminated. While there has been a decline in the number of cases in the summer, the disease is still circulating in kept poultry in Europe. Italy is the most recent country that has been hit. Closer to home, it was recently confirmed to be found in a dead mute swan in Norfolk.

To highlight the risk, the government is working alongside the National Farmers’ Union, the Ulster Farmers’ Union, the RSPCA, British Hen Welfare and the Poultry Club of Great Britain to promote a high level of biosecurity.

The organisations are also working in conjunction to communicate the risk of the disease being present in backyard flocks. If the illness is detected, it will lead to the same trade restrictions that an outbreak on a commercial farm would present. Protecting every bird, therefore, is of the upmost importance.

“While it is undoubtedly good news we haven’t confirmed a case in kept birds in the UK for two months, the disease remains a threat – particularly as we move again towards the colder months,” said the UK’s chief veterinary officer Nigel Gibbens.

“For that reason we cannot afford to rest on our laurels and I want to remind keepers of flocks, large and small, to do everything they can to reduce the risk to their birds.

“Simple actions you can take now, such as regularly cleaning and disinfecting the area where you keep your birds and signing up for free disease alerts, could really help to reduce the risk of your birds becoming infected this winter.”

Christianne Glossop, chief veterinary officer for Wales, added: “While I am sure this lack of new outbreaks will be welcomed by poultry and other captive bird keepers of both large and small flocks, I would remind everyone it is vital they continue to be vigilant for signs of disease and maintain excellent biosecurity practices.

“If you are concerned about the health of your birds, you should seek advice from your veterinary surgeon and if you suspect that your birds have AI, you should report it to your local Animal and Plant Health Agency office.”

The government warned that, given the recent detection of the disease in Norfolk, there was every possibility that AI would return again this winter. It is believed the disease was transmitted last year by migratory wild birds. As a result, keepers needed to be aware of the danger of contact between wild birds and their kept birds, and take action now, it said.

“Given the constant risk of bird flu in the UK from wild birds, I would urge bird-keepers to take some simple actions now to help reduce the chance of their birds becoming infected,” explained chief veterinary officer for Scotland Sheila Voas. “These could include steps to reduce contact with wild birds, particularly on ponds and other water bodies.

“One of the main challenges government faced during last year’s avian influenza outbreak was being able to contact bird-keepers with small numbers of birds. To stay up to date with the latest situation I would encourage bird-keepers – including those who are already on the GB Poultry Register – to sign up to the Animal and Plant Health Agency free text alerts service.”

Northern Ireland’s chief veterinary officer Robert Huey said that while he welcomed the lack of new outbreaks across the UK, the risk of AI remained a threat to the nation’s bird-keepers. “That is why it is essential that bird-keepers maintain effective biosecurity all year round, not only when a prevention zone is in place,” he said.

“Poultry and other bird-keepers in Northern Ireland are also reminded that their birds must be registered with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. This will ensure they can be contacted quickly in an avian disease outbreak, enabling them to protect their flock at the earliest opportunity.”

The government’s advice on keeping flocks disease-free:
•    Keep the area where birds live clean and tidy, including controlling rat and mice populations and regularly disinfecting any hard surfaces. Also, clean footwear before and after visits.
•    Place birds’ food and water in fully enclosed areas that are protected from wild birds, and remove any spilled feed regularly.
•    Put fencing around outdoor areas where birds are allowed and limit their access to ponds or areas visited by wild waterfowl.
•    Sign up to free services to receive text or email alerts on any outbreaks of bird flu in the UK and register your flock online.

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