Poultry farmers have moved to urgently reassure the public about the availability of Christmas birds amid concerns over new movement restrictions that have been introduced to counter the risk of an avian flu outbreak.
A highly pathogen strain, known as H5N8, is circulating in a number of countries in mainland Europe and while no outbreak has been detected in Britain, the Government enforced a 30-day ‘Prevention Zone’ on December 6. The precautionary measure applies across England during what is the winter migration season for wild birds.
The restrictions have been replicated in Wales and Scotland and mean keepers of poultry and other captive birds must keep their birds indoors, or separate from wild birds, until January 6.
But the preventative measures have little effect on the Christmas poultry sales rush, according to James Mills, regional poultry advisor at the National Farmers’ Union, who said: “The measure was a preventative measure to ensure there were safeguards put in place for the Christmas supply and going forward into the new year.
“The processing season starts in the third week of November and a large percentage of birds have already been slaughtered meaning these products are already away from any risks.
“It is important to remember there has not been an outbreak in the UK despite all the concern, and producers take seriously their responsibilities to ensure the welfare of their birds.”
Public Health England said the threat of the H5N8 strain to human health is “very low” yet it has not stopped West Yorkshire poultry producer Tim Lindley from receiving anxious calls from customers.
Mr Lindley, who operates from Hostingley Farm in Thornhill, Dewsbury, supports the current restrictions and said he was keen to clarify the situation to the public.
The farmer said: “For our birds it is not a problem. Our product has been in the freezer since before the restrictions came in.
“We take great care to look after the birds and prevent wild birds from feeding with them but we’ve had an amazing reaction on the phone and online to the restrictions.
“Over three or four days it has impacted our orders. Whether it will impact on the overall number it’s hard to know yet but the slow down was quite marked.”
Mr Lindley added: “Everybody in our particular trade, where our birds are properly hung and dry plucked, they can keep them a reasonable amount of time in the freezer to mature them, just like beef.”
Maire Burnett, agricultural policy manager at the British Poultry Council, emphasised that there was no need for public alarm.
“The whole reason the Government brought in the prevention order was to minimise the risk of an avian flu outbreak, certainly not with the intention of scare mongering the public,” she said.
“It’s always going to be challenging to bring birds that are used to being outside indoors but the majority have been processed for Christmas, and the all-year round laying hens and chicken producers are very mindful when bringing them in to keep an eye on them and provide more straw and enrichment to keep them occupied.”
Declaring a Prevention Zone means birds can stay indoors for up to 12 weeks and maintain their free range status.
Ms Burnett added: “Free range turkeys for Christmas have all met the requirements of being free range and the same for most other poultry meat.”
Earlier, the Government’s chief veterinary officer Nigel Gibbens said: “We are closely monitoring the situation across Europe and have scaled up surveillance in response to the heightened risk.”
BIRDS OF PREY STILL FREE TO FLY
The restrictions caused concerns for birds of prey keepers, including at the National Centre for Birds of Prey in Helmsley.
Centre director Charlie Heap said the initial announcement suggested the attraction - the largest collection of birds of prey in the North - should shut before further guidance stipulated this was only the case if its birds hunted wildfowl.
Mr Heap said the centre’s aviaries are designed to avoid any contact with wild birds.
According to government guidance, keepers of birds of prey can still fly their birds but should avoid contact with wildfowl as they too are susceptible to avian flu.