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.”


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.




Archers’ storyline helps to boost festive goose sales at free-range poultry farm (From The Northern Echo)

A LONG-RUNNING radio drama has helped to boost sales of geese for the Christmas table at a North-East poultry farm.

Source: Archers’ storyline helps to boost festive goose sales at free-range poultry farm (From The Northern Echo)

Oswestry Poultry Auction 25th April – Market Report





The weather report for the weekend wasn’t good, with the fine sunny weather reported to be turning cold and wet. It was certainly cooler but the rain stayed away in the main.

The other thing that was cooler was the volume of birds entered. A number of sales up and down the country have had to cancel or postpone auctions due to the lack of entries however this isn’t due to the lack of demand but really down to the lack of available stock around at the moment.

It’s a bold statement to make perhaps but it’s easy enough to back up as the sale and prices were hot! The auction had just over 140 lots of eggs, deadstock and poultry available and even with the upset prices applied to the auction only 3 lots failed to reach either their reserve or the base price.

A couple of vendors didn’t show on the day and if their reasoning was the low numbers of entries then they could well be kicking themselves given the buoyant prices.

Top for the day

Large Fowl White Wyandotte Pair (K Williams)                £80

Other notables

Buff Orpington Pair                            £42

Sebright (Gold, PR)                           £68
Sabelpoots (TR)                                £64
Sumatra (White, PR)                         £40
Serama (PR)                       average £38

Large Fowl
Faverolles (Salmon, 2 pullets)         £60
Wellsummers (TR)                          £50
Oxford (Pyle, PR)                            £44
Legbar (pullets)                 average £20/bird

Hatching eggs
average £15/dozen


The next sale will now be Sat 22nd August –  Poultry, Poultry Deadstock, Farm Machinery & Antiques.

On a final note many thanks to the vendors and buyers who come to the auction. We are in our 5th year now and appreciate your continued support

Chicken Nugget – Eclipse Plumage

In wild forms of the chicken such as the Red Jungle Fowl a moult can occur in two stages effectively giving the impression of two moults. It is particularly evident in the males. Firstly they will moult their brightly coloured body and head feathers replacing them with more subdued tones more akin to the females. This affords them a level of discretion and camouflage whilst they go through the vulnerable stage of moulting their wing feathers and primary flight feathers.

When these are moulted and not yet fully grown the birds ability to evade predation by short flight is compromised hence the ‘eclipse’ of their coloured plumage. Once the wing feathers have re-grown the second stage of the moult occurs where the temporary dull coloured feathers are replaced by the bright breeding plumage.

Moulting in this manner is more frequently seen in ducks where the drakes on a lake seem to disappear. They are in fact still present but hiding in more subdued female looking feathering.

10 things you wanted to know about chickens but were afraid to ask – 9#

More space doesn’t always mean better welfare

A stimulating debate was aired recently on BBC Countryfile which then spilt over on to various websites, agriculture press and social media. It wasn’t a humdinger but because there was a chicken element involved that I found myself following it quite closely, and became interested in the questions it was throwing up.  The debate was whether Red Tractor was better than Freedom Foods.

If you are not familiar with the two concepts they are effectively assurance schemes that cover food production and within them there are welfare standards that livestock must be kept to. The purpose behind them means the producer is able to use product labelling such as “Red Tractor” or “Freedom Foods” which in turn provides the buyer with confidence that the animal product they are buying comes from a strictly controlled and monitored level of operation.

So why the debate if both are aiming to provide assurance and buyer confidence? The crux it would appear for many involved in the discussions was in the term “welfare”, and which scheme provided the better or higher, levels of welfare. This is probably in part due to the media creating a situation where low to high welfare sits on the same sliding scale as cage to free range organic does, if we use chickens as an example. It doesn’t, welfare is a measure of well-being, happiness and health. High welfare is happy, healthy and well cared for animals; by the same measure low welfare is distressed, sick and unkempt animals.

At this stage in my life I live in quite a rural environment. The nearest bus stop is 2 miles away alongside the nearest shop and the nearest Post Office is a further mile away. My environment is clean and unpolluted and such I consider my welfare (eg my happiness, health and well-being) to be quite high. In 30 years time though I might struggle being so remote and moving to a village or town with amenities on my doorstep would improve my welfare along with downsizing.  Being human I will always endeavour to monitor and manage my environment to maximise my welfare.

The issue as I see it is not which scheme provides a perceived ‘better’ environment for the livestock, it is the one which has the most effective management practices and most importantly of all, the quality and standard of the monitoring procedures which feedback into the process to ensure welfare is maximised. Without close checking and scrutiny of livestock operations then it doesn’t matter what the standard or policies are, they are open to abuse, and abused they will be unintentionally or otherwise.

Returning to chickens, but moving away from the commercial side of things, I’ve seen a vast range of poultry keeping setups. There have been the small fixed pens containing trios of birds that are kept indoors and under artificial light through to the free ranging flock who ‘roam for miles and love to roost outdoors’.

At face value the later would seem to be the better welfare set up but closer inspection shows the penned birds to be exhibiting all the correct behaviours expected from a content and healthy animal whereas the free rangers are an underfed and lice infested flock whose love of roosting outdoors is down to the fact their house is crawling with red mite.

Sure, providing an environment that’s is as natural as possible will contribute towards attaining the requirements of better welfare but it’s down to the keepers management and monitoring to ensure those levels of health, happiness and well-being are in fact achieved. A stockperson lacking in those skills is a liability to livestock welfare regardless of the setup they have for their animals.


Gold Brahma Pullets




10 things you wanted to know about chickens but were afraid to ask – 4#


Hatching season is now upon us and if you decide to try your hand at hatching this year for the first time then the first rule of thumb is ‘sit on your hands’ during the process. Many folks find their first venture into incubator hatching doesn’t quite turn out as it should. Even if the eggs are fertile and candle well, the hatch rate is not quite the bundle of fluff that was expected. More often than not it’s the fault of the operator and not that of the eggs or the chicks.

Artificial incubation isn’t a dark art but it equally it isn’t an exact science. The bottom line is you are trying to get the incubator to the right conditions to enable the embryo to develop fully and the egg to lose 15% of its mass over the designated incubation period (21 days in chickens). Slight fluctuations in those conditions can result in earlier or later hatches and this is where as a first timer you can start to get anxious. It starts with checking the incubator, initially this is looking through the window, next its opening the machine itself (bang goes the optimum conditions when you do this and it will take time for those conditions to return). Next might be to add more water because you don’t think it’s humid enough and then finally it will picking at the shells of the eggs that look like they might have started to pip and its day 21 and thats what the instruction book says is the day the chicks hatch.

Don’t. Sit on your hands or better still go away and do something less destructive because destructive is what you are likely to be if you start to assist in a hatch. You might well break out a chick which goes on to live healthily but by the same measure you can cause leg problems (the chick needs to push itself from the egg to stretch its leg tendons) or worse still kill it by either causing excessive membrane bleed or extracting the youngster from its shell before it’s absorbed all the yolk.

Let nature take its course, some chicks hatch quickly, others slowly, and ducks are down right lazy, rarely though does your intervention in the process result in useful assistance.

This gosling died in shell however you can see the unabsorbed egg sac quite clearly

This gosling died in shell however you can see the unabsorbed egg sac quite clearly


Hicks Waterfowl Retirement Sale – the list!

BE AWARE : Due to the volume of attendees & a poor weather forecast this sale will now be taking place at Oswestry Showground

(SY11 4AB will bring you close to but not exactly to the showground so look out for the road signs)

Some of you might have read about the retirement of Graham Hicks, one of the top domestic waterfowl breeders in the UK, and without a doubt the largest gene pool and collection of domestic waterfowl here in the UK and quite possibly Europe. Sad as it is, heres the list of what will be sold,

Breeds available at the Graham Hicks sale

….and for those who may have missed it, heres my article on the subject with a photo that doesn’t do justice to the massive size and quality of that Muscovy drake!

One of the greats to retire from the Fancy

After well over 30 years of breeding waterfowl and 12 years of running one of the largest collections of waterfowl breeds in the UK if not Europe, Graham Hicks of the world renowned Hicks Waterfowl World has decided it’s time to retire.

“It’s been a very difficult decision to reach and I’ve given it some hard thought over the last 12 months but I’ve finally decide it’s time to retire from the Fancy.” said Graham “I’ve enjoyed many years of success on the show circuit and pioneered a number of new colours and varieties of waterfowl but the time has come for me to retire.” he added.

Graham is one of the few fanciers left in waterfowl world who would carry a show team of birds to the major events around the country and his involvement with the fancy and waterfowl breeding world will be sadly missed. He has set standards of waterfowl exhibiting that are recognised throughout the world resulting in him being asked to attend events throughout Europe and recently as far away as Australia. His skill and knowledge have contributed significantly to todays understanding of waterfowl through his creation of a rich vein of high quality livestock, and the significance and size of the waterfowl gene pool he has nurtured over the years is immeasurable.

“I’ll be holding a Retirement Sale in October when all the birds will have passed through the moult. People will be able to come and buy my breeding stock and hopefully continue on the quality bloodlines I’ve built up over the years.” said Graham “It will be a sad day and no doubt there will be a few tears but rest assured I’ll still have a keen interest in following the Fancy and will keep in touch with all the good friends I’ve made over the years.”

Hicks Waterfowl Retirement Sale will take place on Sunday 21st October at Hicks Waterfowl World, Brookhouse Farm, Selattyn, Oswestry OSWESTRY SHOWGROUND, PARK HALL, OSWESTRYwith the first lot expected around 10am. There will be over 500 lots of livestock on auction plus a limited selection of rearing equipment.

Free-range poultry diseases & disorders

Husbandry of poultry is very much ‘by eye’ and only by spending time around your flock will you pick up on potential problems.  Chickens, like many of the avian species are very good at disguising illness, which is quite possibly a survival mechanism to mitigate the risk of predation.

Sick birds may emerge from the coop in a flurry with the other hens but then spend the day skulking or hiding out of sight, so be sure to do a head count periodically during the daylight, and investigate any bird that seems out of sorts.

The nature of many poultry diseases is such that many of the outward symptoms can appear the same which can leave you, the keeper, at a loss as to what might be the issue. However careful observation of your flock can identify certain diagnostics that may help isolate the problem.

This BVA Animal Welfare Foundation pdf file was put together in conjunction with the Poultry Club of Great Britain and provides an excellent early diagnostic crib sheet. It’s well worth downloading and printing off; stick it on the wall of your chicken shed or feed store and familiarise yourself with the basic symptoms, likely causes and possible treatments.

As mentioned earlier, birds can and do disguise illness, consequently when it becomes obvious that there’s a problem it can often be too late to treat them. Early identification of diseases or disorders therefore can be the difference between life and death.

It goes without saying that the crib sheet provides only a guide but it can be essential in collecting the right information about the problem. This will help immensely should you need to refer to a poultry vet.


Black Brahma pullet looking fit and well

Chicken nugget – Muscovy duck (ok, its not a chicken either)

The Muscovy is one of those birds you cannot fail to notice and often it can bring out mixed responses in terms of admiration because of its distinctive looks. Originally fromSouth America this duck is unlike the others we see today as it originated from the wild Musk Duck and not the wild Mallard, consequently it does not appear to interbreed with other species of duck, and in some peoples belief, it straddles the line between duck and goose






Muscovys are reasonable layers of good sized eggs with the ducks reaching 7lb in weight and the drakes, if left for up to 6 months, reaching 12lb providing a very good dual purpose option. They are a very hardy breed and need no special attention. They can go broody and hatch their own young and the mothers are very attentive.


They are broad and powerful bird,  slow moving when on the ground but will periodically take to the wing often perching on top of a shed or outbuilding to survey their territory.


They also come in a variety of colours and combinations from blacks, whites, lavender, blues and more recently chocolate.


Poultry Auctions: An opinion from all angles?

Mention “Poultry Auctions” to people in the poultry world and it can often draw a mixed bag of responses. Some will vehemently claim they are to be avoided at all costs as they are places where disease and poor quality stock are peddle by ruthless traders. Others will stand up for them as being a place where there is a chance of seeing a wide variety of stock and an opportunity to source new breeds or bloodlines. All though share a view that if you buying you need to keep your eyes wide open.

Image: GBPoultry


I’ve had the opportunity over the years to attend many auctions, initially as an observer, then as a buyer which progressed to a being a seller, and now as a combination of all three. I can be there selling, but buying and yet also soaking up the buzz. Recently though an opportunity arose, the chance to actually organise an auction. I can now see the arguments for and against from all angles, and it can paint a complex picture.

There’s no off-the-shelf package or book on how to set up an auction, and by equal measure, short of the animal licence requirements, there is no hard and fast rules on what or how poultry can or cannot be auctioned. It is basically down to the individuals running the auction to define their own criteria and ultimately set their own regulations.

From the experiences of being buyer, seller and now auction organiser I’ve drawn the following conclusions:
• There is a risk of buying duff items
• There is a risk that a seller will enter items not fit for purpose, inaccurate or inappropriate
• There is a risk that the organisers standards are lax which allows for frequent occurrences of the two above
• Unintentional mistakes happen when honesty & dishonesty can rub shoulders so closely
Those are points that could be made of any auction for any goods, in fact I could easily have been writing about cars or antiques, so what is to be said about the world of poultry auctions?

Image: GBPoultry


It is true that, due to the numerous small scale breeding set ups around the country, the auction does provide an excellent opportunity to sell a number of birds to a wider audience as opposed using static advertising. It also provides an ideal opportunity to add to new bloodlines or breeds to your existing stock. In addition it enables the newcomer to get a view of the many breeds and the variety of quality available even if they don’t buy. Ultimately they can be a valuable asset in the poultry keeping world and it is without doubt that they have contributed to the continuation of certain breeding programmes, aside from expanding the poultry keeping community in the country. That said they are totally self-governing and have to walk a fine and flexible line between providing a service to the seller and protecting the buyer which can leave them exposed to the unscrupulous.

So what can I conclude? An auction, if run correctly, can and does benefit both sellers and buyers, but for this to work then a code of conduct is needed to help Auction houses achieve a standard and give them guidance to work with. This would give both buyers and sellers the confidence that they are attending a quality sale and one which takes into account the most important element of all – the welfare of the poultry.

Without the adoption of some level of standardisation then it will remain with individual auction organisations to work in isolation. Ultimately this will benefit nobody in the end other than those with little care for poultry other than the money it makes them.