Last year I predicted this threat could well become a reality in terms of keeping birds indoors and under cover for 6 months of the year. I didn’t want to imagine it could become a year round issue. There will be some tough decisions and tough times ahead for backyarders, the Fancy and poultry shows if this is what the future holds.
Critical incidents are occurrences that let us see, with new eyes, some aspect of what we do. The critical incident in question is the outbreak of bird flu this winter, and whilst at time of writing we seem to be emerging, to some degree, from the strict prevention orders, it has given me a little time to reflect on what has just happened.
Reflection is something I’ve been taught and encouraged to do whilst studying for a Masters however I’ve recently found it useful to apply to the poultry breeding part of my life.
You simply ask yourself three questions, what happened, so what and now what.
What happened? – Europe, including the UK, was hit by bird flu over the winter of 2016/17
So what? – It resulted in a prevention order being implemented in December 2016, extended, and then extended with modification possibly until April 2017. This required enhanced biosecurity measures to be applied and birds to be kept indoors or in covered runs to minimise the risk of contact with infected wild birds. Not a simple task for a poultry keeping regime that relies on a free range, outdoor livestock.
The winters also seem to be increasingly wild and unpredictable in terms of their weather and it is safe to say that a husbandry technique that is built around free range and pastured rearing of poultry doesn’t work in gale force weather.
Now what? – In the short term my breeding programme is at best delayed, at worst abandoned for the 2017 season. My maintenance costs for the winter have escalated and I have limited stock available for the markets and auctions; not that there have been any to sell through due to restrictions on poultry gatherings, consequently my income from poultry for the year will be hit.
In the longer term is this really a one off. or will next winter result in the same problem or possibly the arrival of H5N9? I will assume that prevention orders will the occur in future years, and as it seems that “lock downs” are the easiest way for the authorities to minimise the risk of bird flu impacting poultry, then I will spend the summer months adjusting my husbandry regime such that I can fully free range in the summer (should there be no prevention orders in place), and I can contain the stock under cover during the winter months, should bird flu and the associated prevention orders reoccur.
It will be a different way of working and I suspect there will be more to consider than just the housing, however I’m not convinced that this is the last we will see of these types of prevention measures that we backyarders and smallholders have had to implement, so I encourage you all to look back and reflect in readiness for the next time it happens.
The Chief Veterinary Officer has extended a Prevention Zone to help protect poultry from avian flu.
UPDATE 6th Jan 14:30: for the full legal declaration read here https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/581957/ai-prevention-zone-170106.pdf
Just in case you needed a reminder, the lock down on poultry flocks and ban on poultry gatherings (auctions, shows etc) has been extended to 28th Feb. Needless to say this will have a significant knock on impact for breeders and small poultry businesses even if the order is lifted when the second deadline is reached.
Good luck to all my fellow poultry people, I hope you whether the storm at this critical point in our poultry rearing year.
Further measures announced to reduce the risk of avian flu spreading
It is a huge shame that in precisely two weeks we have gone from preventative measures taken as a precaution, to an outbreak of AI, albeit localised, and then to the inevitable ban on poultry gatherings such as auctions, fairs and exhibitions.
It comes as no surprise, and whilst it is not something I would have wanted to predict at this time of year when we are only part way through the winter show schedule, there was always an air of closing the door after the horse has bolted, given the announcement a fortnight back.
That isn’t a reflection on the authorities, or those who have worked hard to come up with the most viable approach to the problem being witnessed on the continent. It is instead a sad a reflection of the knife edge on which we perch when it comes to disease pervasiveness and industrial scale global food production.
A ban on poultry shows is minor collateral damage from which the hobby will recover, however I suspect the same cannot be said of those producers whose livelihoods depend upon the livestock they grow for the food chain. The truth is, the more uniform and clinical something becomes the higher the risk that transmission will result in a total wipe out. If this were not the case then there would be many more dead wild birds being found with AI across our countryside.
I recall the morning of the 7th of December 2016 as being much like any other at that time of year. It was dark outdoors as I filled the kettle and switched on the radio. The weather had turned slightly mild and damp after a nice spell of icy cold weather. I remember thinking we could have done with another week of the cold weather just to ‘clean the ground’. The poultry really do seem to benefit from seasonal shifts like that as opposed to the mild merge of muddy autumn into murky winter. Aside from that, they always look resplendent free ranging on a frosty, bright day.
Routine had the radio playing the Today programme on Radio 4 and it’s not every day that poultry makes it on to the news. No surprise then that my ears instinctively pricked up as the Chief Vet came on air and informed the reporters that due to outbreaks of a highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza which is sweeping across Europe, DEFRA have invoked a precautionary “prevention zone”. This order required all poultry and captive birds to be kept indoors for 30 days in order to reduce the risk of possible infection occurring from domesticated birds coming into contact with infected migratory wild birds. Initially this only impacted England however within days Wales and Scotland quickly followed suit and the zone became UK wide.
It had been on the cards. I had been following the discussions taking place between the authorities and the industry during the autumn as I recall the spectre of the AI hovering over the country a decade ago. The impact that had still resonates, but for me it is not so much from an industry perspective, but from that of the backyarder and smallholder.
I haven’t done the maths but I suspect I wouldn’t be far wrong to say that 98% of the poultry in the UK is owned by 2% of the poultry keepers and as such a large element of the risk can be managed with a plan that works for a small minority of keepers. The reverse is, 98% of poultry keepers owning 2% of the poultry and these are dispersed and relatively unregulated and unmonitored.
We are predominantly free rangers who view a chicken coop as a place where the birds roost and lay their eggs. as opposed to a building where the flock can be contained for 30 days, and there lies the crux. Precautionary prevention zones are sensible and far more desirable than an outbreak and the subsequent indiscriminate destruction of birds that fall within that biohazard zone, and I suspect that if the action is successful (measured on the basis of no infection occurring whilst the order is in place) then they will become a more frequent occurrence.
Commercial keepers of thousands of birds have the capacity to contain their flocks within the sheds has been analysed and generally agreed as a feasible approach but what of the small scale keeper?
DEFRA have state the “The Prevention Zones requires all poultry and captive birds, including backyard flocks and other captive birds, to be housed or, where it is not practicable to do so, requires steps to be taken to keep them separate from wild birds. If you keep your birds near your home, consider housing them in alternative accommodation, such as a garden building, a garage or redundant building that could be adapted to house your birds temporarily.”
This is sound advice for those who have such buildings and DEFRA went on to say “Remember to check for, and remove, hazardous and toxic substances such as rat bait, and make sure the birds have access to water and somewhere to perch. You must also practice good biosecurity – for example disinfecting footwear and equipment and washing clothing after contact with birds.”
Victoria Roberts, one of Britain’s leading poultry vets, and fellow magazine contributor, when asked what action smallholders and back garden poultry keepers should take said “In its most pragmatic terms, ‘indoors’ means protection from wild bird faeces, so a covered run is better welfare for chickens than being shut in a dark shed. Free range hens will need entertainment if suddenly confined, such as branches for extra perching, vegetables hung up etc. to avoid conflict.”
One twitter user asked me if wire mesh over the top of the run would be enough to keep her flock safe. I reminded her that bird faeces would still be able to drop through the mesh and that a tarpaulin cover would prevent this, but to ensure it had slight tilt on it so that rain (and snow) could run off safely and away from the flock underneath.
Victoria has also echoed this point adding “The birds need to be kept in the hen hut until the keeper can construct a makeshift run that is covered.”
It is ultimately a case of common sense as this disease is no different than many in that it is spread through:
- movement of poultry, people, vehicles and equipment between and within locations;
- the introduction of birds of poor or unknown health status;
- contact with other flocks;
- using shared equipment and vehicles, which have not been effectively cleansed and disinfected;
- contact with vermin or wild birds;
- birds drinking from contaminated water sources;
- birds eating contaminated feed;
- unsatisfactory cleansing and disinfection of vehicles, sheds, feeding troughs and other equipment.
The objective therefore is to remove, or at least dramatically reduce, the risk of your flock coming into contact with wild birds or their faeces. Here are some specific considerations for when a prevention zone is invoked.
Keep the flock indoors – if this is possible then it is the easiest option but observe the welfare needs of the birds closely by increasing your cleaning regime, providing additional items of interest for your flock, and observing a tight biosecurity plan to reduce the risk of infection being carried into the housing. It should go without saying but any proposed building must also take into account the importance of adequate ventilation.
Keep the flock runs covered – permanent indoor housing might not be possible it which case a cover over the run is needed. Small gauge mesh will only stop birds from entering the run and whilst better than nothing at all, a solid cover is far superior at reducing the risk. Consider erecting a solid lean-to on the side of existing houses, this could be a fence panelling for example, or adapting a fruit cage using tarpaulin. Creating temporary outdoor pens using straw bales and a tarpaulin roof with small gaps for light and ventilation is another option. Be aware though if bad weather is likely to be a problem, it may be necessary to erect a windbreak around your structure.
Keep moveable coops in the same place – if your birds are housed in moveable arks or tractor units then don’t be tempted to move the house to fresh ground. This will simply increase the possibility of your flock coming into contact with wild bird faeces.
Keep your access to the housing and run area to a minimum – by doing this you will reduce the risk of you contaminating the area with wild bird faeces you may have come into contact with elsewhere on your property
Keep your equipment clean – use disinfectant such as Virkon to keep equipment and footwear clean, and ensure the clothing you use when working with your poultry is washed after contact with birds.
Keep feed and water out of the reach of wild birds – make sure that drinkers are under cover and ideally put feeders in the coop. Avoid placing water in the house unless you are using nipple drinkers; regularly drinkers will get knocked over in any skirmishes in the coop.
Keep your birds contained – avoid unnecessary handling and movement of your birds on or off site, and where practical avoid visiting other poultry keeping establishments to reduce any possibility of cross contamination.
Keep a close eye on your poultry – if you have any signs of illness then seek advice from a qualified vet.
The 6th of Jan is when the restrictions are due to be lifted however time will tell if the pre-emptive action has paid dividends, but more over whether all 100% of the UKs poultry keepers have conformed and made their contribution to keeping the UK bird flu free.
As another breeding season draws to a close I find myself looking back over my hatching records, and the cross section of growers I have on the go. In front of me on the wall is a ‘post-it’ note that states “No Eggs To Be Set After End Of May”. It is in my son’s handwriting, and to be fair it’s there for a good reason and acts as my annual reminder.
For too many years I’d still have my incubators whirring away in August, September and even early October only to find myself ruing the day I set the eggs. Why? By November and December the resulting hatchlings have outgrown their indoor facilities and need to go outside, but outside its cold, wet and muddy. Hands up if you too have learnt that lesson only to forget it the following year?
As a poultry breeder there is a constant temptation to set eggs.
In some years I’ve had hatchlings popping out everywhere, and it’s been a bumper season for sales, and so I’ve kept hatching well beyond my common sense threshold. The risk is though, you see it as the poultry equivalent of making hay whilst the sun shines, the trouble is ‘making hay’ is a harvesting event, setting eggs is more like sowing seeds. As a gardener you read the label, it tells you when to sow and when to harvest. You don’t get that warning when breeding poultry, so in many respects the note acts my label.
He wrote the note I think primarily because he too ends up having to help out and when the weather is poor, pushing a wheelbarrow along a path with 6 inch of mud on it, whilst the wind successful empties the contents of said barrow across the paddock, is a spirit sapping task even for the most happy-go-lucky individual. I’ve written about it before but the winters at the moment seem to be more mild and more wet, with occasional unpredictable extremes such as having a BBQ in March one year only to be under 3 feet of snow the same month the following year, and as such I’ve shifted my breeding plans at least for the time being. I’ve shorten the window of time for setting eggs, and lengthened the period of time the males are apart from the females…… and I have to say I’ve found it altogether more manageable.
As such sense is prevailing and this rather faded post-it note has served me well. It has also meant I’ve had more time in the summer to just enjoy watching the youngsters growing outdoors on the grass, rather than spending hours indoors covered in dander and dust dealing with day olds. You never know, I might even venture towards a summer holiday one year!
Region of origin: France
Profile: The combination of the deep red horned comb, strong beak, cavernous nostrils and beetle black plumage coupled with the solid stature of this breed means it well suited to it nick name of “Satan’s Fowl”. It is quite a large chicken which makes a good layer but grows quickly making an excellent table bird well-known in its country of origin.
Behaviour and upkeep: These birds benefit from being able to free range as they are excellent foragers and will cover large distances in search of food. This makes them a very economical breed ideally suited to their dual purpose function. They are also capable of flying quite high despite their size so do need high fences or roofed areas if they are not to be found roosting in trees. Wary by nature they do not tame easily though they are not an aggressive breed.
Eyes: Black/Red, Comb: Double spike, Feet & legs: Clean, dark slate or black
Cock: Large Fowl 8-9lb (3.6 –4.1 kg) Bantam 36oz (1020g)
Hen: Large Fowl 6-7lb (2.7-3.2 kg) Bantam 28oz (800g)
Egg production: Medium to high
Egg Colour: White
Classification: Heavy; Rare
I’m quite vocal at times about the contrast between commercial poultry rearing and small scale or backyard keeping. I can be quite damning about some the legislation because I’m a great believer that in a large majority of cases one size doesn’t fit all. In fact the concept of one size fitting all seems to stem from the issue that pragmatism and scalability get side-lined. This is either because they are too expensive or are only relevant to ‘the little people’ who, by definition, are irrelevant in the grand scheme of the poultry world!
It follows on then that given my documented opinions I am sometimes challenged by people as to whether my attitude stems from a belief that small scale poultry keepers know better than the big boys and the authorities, or whether I’m just an outspoken idiot. I guess when I put these commentaries out there then it’s only to be expected that someone is going tackle me about them, I mean I’m hardly the Jeremy Clarkson of the poultry world (and have no intention of punching the Editor of Fancy Fowl) but I do realise that if you voice an opinion you are unlikely to find everyone is in agreement.
So. Do we know best? No, we don’t. I for one though do know that when it comes to livestock whatever you put into it needs to either come out again, or you better be very sure it has no consequences staying within the animal, and this is certainly one area where I think a number of small scale keepers and the Fancy can be found at fault.
It’s not so much the food stuffs used in this instance (although obviously there are issues that need to be addressed on that point) but the regime of chemicals and drugs that get administered and applied willy-nilly. There’s many a poultry keeper I’ve spoken to who decided to keep chickens because they had become concerned over the welfare of the livestock used to produce meat and eggs. Some were uneasy about the cocktail of antibiotics and vaccinations that were being administered to the chickens that supplied the high street, and this led them to rear some of their own birds. By the same measure I’ve spoken to and heard of many more backyard poultry keepers who seem to have forgotten that Betty the Hen is in fact ‘livestock’ and therefore falls under a different category to ‘pet’. Being blunt this means the stuff you squirt all over your cat to prevent biting insects can’t be applied to your chickens unless the label specifically says so. This is because ‘cat’ isn’t something you see on the supermarket shelf. By the same measure injecting your chicken with a ‘cure’ that keeps you dog fit and healthy is also a bad call, on account of the fact your dog doesn’t lay eggs for Sundays full cooked breakfast.
And then there are those I encounter within the Fancy who apply all manner of unlicensed products to their birds whilst spraying industrial insecticides throughout their sheds to minimise the risk of disease and pests burdening their show winning flock. When I challenge them a defence of “ah but these are show birds” is offered but this isn’t a defence unless you have no intention of either consuming or selling on stock or eggs. Ultimately if these people release either eggs or birds from their flock then they are running the risk of putting something into the food chain that shouldn’t be there.
As a Kansas State University pharmacologist recently said, “what you don’t know about your chickens could hurt you and others”. People who use, administer and apply ‘off-piste’, under the counter medications and chemicals need to be aware that there are potential drug residues that could sit within the eggs and meat of the bird for an indeterminate amount of time. These people do exist too because if I for one had a pound for every time I heard “I use XYZ and look, my birds are fine, and none of them have dropped dead” then I’d be able to afford a few rounds at the pub for sure.
As I mentioned at the beginning, I might be outspoken about what I consider to be daft when it comes to the application of legislation surrounding what can and cannot be fed to poultry, but this is because I’m trying to apply common sense, pragmatism and scalability. However, when it comes to the control of medications and chemical treatments then there are sound reasons why they should not be used around livestock. This is because of the risk to the food chain, so unless you can genuinely claim to “know best” then be aware you could well be inadvertently dosing our food chain with fluoroquinolones , phenylpyrazoles and all manner of lethal concoctions. Eat that.
Even if you only keep a few birds as pets or for an egg supply for the kitchen it is worth keeping up to speed on what is happening within the commercial side of our ‘hobby’
c/o The Poultry Site
CHRISTMAS SPECIAL – An editor’s selection box of some of this year’s news stories that have had the biggest impact on poultry production and trade around the world.