A Critical Incident Reflection from the Chicken Coop

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

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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.20170221_084210

 

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.

 

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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.

Chief Vet Nigel Gibbens questions the viability of free range egg production in avian influenza high risk areas – Farming UK News

This might not be what people want but I can’t deny the logic behind the fact that if you can’t free range then don’t free range. It’s up to you to decide if that means don’t keep chickens, or do keep them but in a contained environment.

“UK’s Chief Vet Nigel Gibbens has said that egg producers in some higher risk bird flu areas should consider whether or not to continue with free range in future”

Source: Chief Vet Nigel Gibbens questions the viability of free range egg production in avian influenza high risk areas – Farming UK News

Farmers, Smallholders Warned Not to Feed Kitchen Scraps to Animals – The Poultry Site

UK – The Animal and Plant Health Agency is warning farmers and smallholders not to feed catering or kitchen waste to livestock such as pigs and poultry, even if they are being kept as pets.

Source: Farmers, Smallholders Warned Not to Feed Kitchen Scraps to Animals – The Poultry Site

Avian flu prevention zone extended to 28th Feb – Press releases – GOV.UK

The Chief Veterinary Officer has extended a Prevention Zone to help protect poultry from avian flu.

Source: Avian flu prevention zone extended – Press releases – GOV.UK

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 extendBPRHead2ed 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.

Poultry gatherings suspended following avian flu case – Press releases – GOV.UK

Further measures announced to reduce the risk of avian flu spreading

Source: Poultry gatherings suspended following avian flu case – Press releases – GOV.UK

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.dsc_2618

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.

Bird Flu and the Backyard Poultry Keeper

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 myai-symptoms 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.

ai-transferIt 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.

ai-free-rangeWe 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.”

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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.

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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.

 

 

Farmers left with fowl problem as consumers flock to free range eggs

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I was interested to read the below article in the i paper particularly as it resonates with many of the articles I have written on the subject over the years in titles like Country Smallholding, Fancy Fowl and even the Guardian back in 2012

 

“Free range egg sales have reached the same level as eggs from cage-kept birds for the first time as Britons’ appetite for one of nature’s ultimate pre-packaged food reaches record levels.   Data released by the UK’s £910m egg industry and the Government shows that 614m free range eggs were sold in the third quarter […] “

Source: Farmers left with fowl problem as consumers flock to free range eggs – The i newspaper online iNews

It puts a different perspective on the “free range” dilemma when it comes to consumers and the supply industry.

I recall some years back a reader contacting me with what is quite possibly one of the most difficult poultry posers I’ve had in a while.

The reader had been looking at the food they ate and in particular eggs as they were concerned about the production method. They had only recently learnt about the standard practice of culling millions of day old male chicks as part of the rearing of laying pullets for egg production and wanted to know of any way in which they could purchase more ethically sound eggs. As the correspondent said “if the egg production method hurts my conscience the only way is to not eat eggs but I need to know first before I make that decision”

In a nutshell if you buy eggs from a commercial supplier then you are buying into the culling of the male chicks at day one.  Also just so I’m balancing it out, if you buy off gate then you could potentially be also buying into the same destruction of the males at day one if that seller is using hybrids (these are sex-linked meaning the males are removed at day one).

The only answer is to source a poultry breeder who uses a dual purpose breed and therefore making use of the male birds that he/she breeds by fattening them for the table. These people are fully utilising the livestock they are producing.

 

Biosecurity – some best practice

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Biosecurity byword

Biosecurity is a buzzword in livestock farming but it is one that backyard poultry-keepers need to be aware of. No matter how small your flock of birds may be, good biosecurity practices should be followed, not only to minimize the risk of disease transfer within your own poultry, but also transfer to other people’s birds. Below are a few common-sense biosecurity measures to build into your daily routine:

  • Keep poultry feed under cover to deter the attentions of wild birds.
  • Ensure water is always fresh, and clean drinkers out at least twice a week, if not more.
  • Replace any water that becomes soiled with droppings.
  • Quarantine any stock that has been off site (such as to a poultry show) for at least seven days.
  • Quarantine new stock for at least two weeks before bringing the birds into contact with existing stock.
  • Clean your clothes and boots after visiting another poultry establishment, show, or sale.
  • If you have more than one pen of birds, consider using a disinfectant boot wash.
  • Don’t share transportation crates or feeding equipment with other keepers.
  • Always disinfect transportation crates before and after use.
  • Wash your hands before and after handling poultry.
  • Keep vermin such as rats and mice under control.

 

Biosecurity is all about disease prevention. By following these simple precautions, you will go a long way to protecting your flock from infectious diseases.

Northern fowl mite: don’t let it catch you out this winter

 

A couple of Christmas’s ago I took a call from a poultry keeper who was going through their first winter with chickens. They were looking for advice on how to deal with the constant downpours of rain we’ve been having. We discussed different ways to keep the run as dry as possible and keep the chickens out of standing water and reduce the amount of muck they traipse into the coop, but one thing they said caught my attention: “The birds seem to get soaked every day, they didn’t even look dry when I let them out this morning.”

I asked if the birds emerged from the coop eager for a drink or to get some feed and I was told they just seemed to stand there looking miserable, particularly the cockerel. This suggested something more than just the cold wet weather to me, and as the keeper only lived a few miles away, I offered to pop around to take a look. DB 120306-2

A casual glance at the cockerel would have suggested it was simply wet on its back, but its sunken stance along with a more greasy appearance to the feathers suggested a possible northern fowl mite (Ornithonyssus sylviarum) infestation. I picked the cockerel up and parted the feathers at the base of the tail and the mite was very much in evidence crawling over the skin (and heading across my fingers).

These mites become far more active during our winter, as they prefer cooler climates. Once they find a suitable host bird they will multiple at an alarming rate. Like the summer pest red mite, these are blood suckers but unlike red mite these little nasties complete their entire lifecycle on the birds and are far more aggressive, feeding around the clock. The greasy look of the feathers is caused by their faecal deposits: they are capable of killing a bird within a matter of days if the infestation isn’t dealt with.

In this instance referral to the local poultry vet was required as the off-the-shelf products may not have acted quickly enough. Regular dusting of your chickens (for example with a pyrethrum-based poultry powder) will help keep northern fowl mite and other external parasites at bay, but dusting wet birds can be difficult, and given the soggy ground conditions the chickens’ normal dust bath may not be available. It is easy to understand how this new keeper was caught out.

The key is to inspect and handle your flock regularly. A lot of the skill in poultry keeping is husbandry by eye, as chickens can have a canny way of disguising ailments until it’s too late. So if you sense something isn’t quite right then check, double check and seek advice. Prompt action could save time, money and above all, the chicken’s life.

 

Let sense prevail… incubators off.

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 growerssmy 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 yearOwlbeard-White-Day old 1s 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.

Leghorn-Brown-Day old 1 (640x451)

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!