Bird flu outbreaks: What it means for backyard chicken keepers

A large part of our region is in a DEFRA surveillance zone, following the latest local outbreak of bird flu at a poultry farm on Holy Island.

The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) confirmed a 3km strict exclusion zone and a 10km surveillance zone have been put in place around the premises on Lindisfarne after the outbreak was confirmed earlier this week.

The island is still open for business, but a plea has been issued to the public to follow strict regulations to contain the spread of the disease.

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Just last month the popular Ouseburn Farm in Newcastle lost all 50 of its birds following an outbreak, with those that had not been infected humanly culled to prevent further spread.

A 10km surveillance zone is still in place around the Ouseburn Farm, which was allowed to reopen to visitors last weekend.

As well as a 10Km surveillance zone, there is also a 3km protection zone around Holy Island, and bird keepers living within the three-mile exclusion zone have been urged to register their birds details with the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA).

This includes the owners of indoor caged birds such as pet budgies or parrots, as well as chicken keepers.

So-called backyard chicken keeping saw a massive increase during lockdown, with about 1.2 million chickens being kept as pets last year, compared to only 400,000 in 2020.

Bird flu may have come as a shock to the hundreds of new chicken keepers, who may be confused about what is required of them to keep their birds safe and within the regulations.

Here we look at the disease and what you need to do, even if you just keep a couple of chickens in your back garden.

What is bird flu?

Bird flu is a seasonal occurrence in the UK, as some wild migratory birds bring the virus with them during winter.

The disease can then spread to populations in farms and wildlife sanctuaries when wild birds mix with captive ones.

When did this outbreak start?

This season, the first outbreak in a captive population was near Wychavon in Worcestershire, England on 27 October. Since then, at least 65 outbreaks have been recorded in the UK, with the government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) describing the outbreak as the ‘biggest-ever in Great Britain’.

Since 3 November 2021, an avian influenza prevention zone has been declared across Britain to try and limit the spread of the virus.

I only have a few hens, do I need to follow the rules?

The strict lockdown-style measures apply not only to large commercial poultry farms but also smaller keepers with hens in coops or garden pens.

So what does this mean if you keep birds for a hobby?

  • You must keep your birds contained in a building, polytunnel or micro-netted enclosure that is proofed against wild birds and their droppings.
  • An enclosure built using posts and chicken wire can easily be converted to wild-bird-free status through the addition of scaffolding (debris) netting on top and at the sides. It’s easy to attach and seems to be pretty hard wearing, also it can be bought cheaply off eBay.
  • Cleaning out your poultry coop on a regular basis
  • Disinfect your footwear before entering the chicken zone and wash your hands after visiting the enclosure.

Backyard chicken keeping has increased massively since the pandemic

Can I free range my hens in my garden?

No, all hens must be an an enclosure

Do my hens need to be indoors?

Not necessarily, but they do need to be contained in a pen with a roof to prevent cross contamination with wild birds. Food and water should be kept in the pen under cover to prevent wild birds getting access to it.

Won’t they get bored?

If your hens are not used to being penned in, they may struggle. Bored hens spell trouble, usually in the form of the weaker hens being pecked by the leaders of the pack.

To prevent boredom, hang peck blocks in their pen and provide perches for the hens to use. Old CDs and DVDs can also be hung in the pens, as hens can look at themselves and play with them.

How do I know when my hen is poorly?

Symptoms of infected birds include swollen heads, a lack of coordination and gasping for air.

If it is sick, what do I need to do?

Anyone who finds a wild bird that appears to be sick or dead should under no circumstances touch it. Instead, they should call the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on 03459 33 55 77 to report the bird.

If a captive bird is suspected to have bird flu it must be reported to Defra, as failure to do so is an offence.

Is there anything else I can do?

If you have under 50 birds, you can voluntarily register your flock with DEFRA, which means you will get regular updates on the bird flu outbreak. Owners with more than 50 chickens, ducks or geese need to do this by law.

For more information on bird flu, visit the government’s website here.

Is there a danger to humans?

One person has been reported as having contracted bird flu, with UKHSA officials saying that the individual acquired the infection from ‘very close, regular contact with a large number of infected birds, which they kept in and around their home over a prolonged period of time .’

They added that the risk of bird flu to the wider public is ‘very low’, while the Food Standards Agency states that ‘properly cooked poultry and poultry products, including eggs, are safe to eat.’

For more information on bird flu, visit the government’s website here.

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