Free-range chickens and eggs could be a thing of the past in the UK due to highly contagious bird flu, which now appears ‘endemic’, experts warn.
“Britain and continental Europe have been hit this winter by the largest outbreak of bird flu on record,” The guard reported. British farmers have been under strict instructions to keep their birds indoors since last November.
The guidance means chickens can no longer be labeled as free range, as UK regulations require free range poultry to have outside access during the day.
In December said Dr. Christine Middlemiss, the country’s chief veterinarian BBC radio 4 that tens of thousands of captive birds were killed on UK farms and sanctuaries after the “largest number of farms ever” reported cases of bird flu.
According to the Ministry of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) the risk to human health is “very low” although sick birds should not be handled or touched. But the outbreak “is having a huge impact on people, animals and trade,” Middlemiss warned.
How is bird flu spread?
The disease is “spread largely by migratory wild birds returning to the UK and passing them on to other birds,” the BBC said, and has no link to Covid-19 pandemic.
When asked if the climate crisis could be to blame for the rise in bird flu infections, Middlemiss said that “that’s certainly one of the thoughts our experts have”. She explained: “The birds migrate to northern Russia over the summer and mix with other birds on other global flight routes and exchange the viruses. So it’s entirely plausible that with climate change and changing pathways, differential mixing is occurring.”
She said “increased biosecurity measures” would be needed by the end of the migration season, which lasts until March.
A bird flu prevention zone was declared across the UK on 3 November and expanded on 29 November. Under the restrictions, all bird keepers must keep the animals indoors and follow “strict biosecurity measures, whether they have pet birds, commercial flocks, or just a few birds in a backyard flock,” according to Defra guidelines.
Will the UK outbreak affect the food supply?
Middlemiss told that today program in December that the food supply should not be affected as the number of farms affected was “a relatively very small number in terms of supply of eggs, meat, chicken, etc.”
She warned at the time that any bird confirmed to have an outbreak would be killed, but added that “it’s really devastating for the keepers involved”.
But the regularity of bird flu outbreaks means that “free range chickens and eggs may not be able to be produced in the UK and elsewhere in Europe in the future,” reports The Guardian.
Experts have suggested that “highly pathogenic variants of avian influenza now appear to be endemic in wild birds,” the paper added, “presenting a year-round risk of infection.”
“There is a serious problem for outdoor and open-air farms,” said Dr. Guillaume Fournié, veterinarian and epidemiologist at the Royal Veterinary College.
“We are seeing outbreaks on a large scale [indoor] Poultry farms that would have had high biosecurity. This suggests that with a high environmental burden from the virus, it is now difficult to ensure a farm is 100% biosecure.”
That warning was echoed by Marion Koopmans, a virologist and consultant to the World Health Organization, who said the current situation is “terrible” for free-range poultry producers.
“The ecology [of avian flu] changed drastically in just a few years,” she said. “We now have local circulation in Europe all year round, it’s not just a seasonal threat. It is persistently present in the wild bird population.”
https://www.theweek.co.uk/news/uk-news/955094/human-uk-avian-flu The impact of the UK’s ‘phenomenal levels’ of bird flu