Around half a million birds have had to be culled as the UK battles what has been called the “largest ever” outbreak of bird flu.
Dozens of highly pathogenic avian flu cases have been recorded across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland despite the introduction of UK-wide prevention measures in November.
It has ripped through poultry farms, wild bird populations of geese, ducks and swans, as well as a number of birds of prey.
While bird flu’s risk to humans remains low, there have been warnings the virus could jump across if people come into close contact with infected birds.
Concern over case numbers
The UK’s chief veterinary officer Christine Middlemiss said there are 40 infected poultry farm premises in the UK - 33 in England, three in Wales, two in Scotland and two in Northern Ireland.
These cases have been brought into the country by migratory birds which are flying south for the winter months from places like Russia and Eastern Europe.
Bird flu outbreaks in the UK are not uncommon and tend to occur between autumn and spring, although the fact that they are occurring so early on in the migratory season has taken experts by surprise.
Dr Middlemiss told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme there was a “phenomenal level” of bird flu and that it had “huge human, animal and trade implications”.
She said she was “very concerned” about bird flu, and that having 40 infected premises is “a really high number for the time of year”.
The vet said around 500,000 birds have had to be culled.
“I know that sounds a huge number, and of course for those keepers affected it’s really devastating.
“But in terms of food supply impact it’s actually relatively a very small number in terms of egg supply, meat, chicken and so on.”
According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) figures, more than 1.1 billion chickens were killed for their meat in the UK in 2020.
Speaking in the House of Commons, Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “Each year the UK faces a seasonal risk in incursion of avian influenza associated with migratory wild birds.
“While we have that each year, I have to say this year we are now seeing the largest-ever outbreak in the UK.”
‘Bird lockdown’ needed until spring
An Avian Influenza Prevention Zone, which requires farmers and birdkeepers to follow strict biosecurity standards, was declared across the UK on 3 November.
This then became a nationwide housing order on 29 November - a measure that is essentially a lockdown for poultry and pets as they are stopped from going outside.
It means that when you pick up British free range eggs or chicken in the supermarket, the product might not actually have been reared that way.
However, this shouldn’t apply to turkey products as most turkeys were killed and processed weeks ago before the housing order was introduced.
Dr Middlemiss said “we are going to need to keep up these levels of heightened biosecurity” until the spring.
Defra has said the new housing measures will be kept under regular review.
Advice for people with chickens and bird feeders
People who keep chickens and want to feed wild birds need to make sure everything is kept “scrupulously clean” and “absolutely separate” to avoid infecting their own flocks, Dr Middlemiss advised.
The risk to human health from bird flu remains very low, according to public health advice, and there is a low food safety risk.
An RSPB spokesperson said: “Everyone should take care to maintain good hygiene when feeding garden birds, regularly cleaning feeders outside with mild disinfectant, removing old bird food, spacing out feeders as much as possible, and washing your hands.”