The recent cases of Avian Flu are a reminder that all poultry keepers should remain vigilant, particularly keepers of ‘backyard flocks’ in areas where they might easily mix with wild migratory birds, especially wildfowl.

Keepers of hobby or back yard flocks should seriously consider their responsibilities in relation to poultry farmers whose birds are their livelihood. With the colder weather there is an increased risk from avian influenza in the UK from migrating wild birds (which might infect domestic poultry).

New housing measures, in force since last month, mean that it is now a legal requirement for all bird keepers to keep their birds indoors and to follow strict biosecurity measures in order to limit the spread of and eradicate the disease.

The housing measures build on the strengthened biosecurity regulations that were brought in as part of the Avian Influenza Protection Zone (AIPZ) last year. The AIPZ means that all poultry and captive bird keepers need to take extra precautions, such as cleaning and disinfecting equipment, clothing and vehicles, limiting access to non-essential people on their sites, and workers changing clothing and footwear before entering bird enclosures.

Owners who has a flock numbering more than fifty birds must register the flock. Even keepers with fewer than fifty are encouraged to register.

Robert Frewen, Rural Surveyor for CLA North and keen poultry keeper, shares his experiences of protecting his small flock from avian flu.

Robert was able to house his five Lavender Pekin Bantams in a stable.

During the day, the top half of the door is open to provide natural light but their feed and water is effectively protected from wild birds. His other fifteen hens that normally live in his orchard have moved into the dog kennels. The indoor bit is a combination of three kennels with a connecting corridor, and the outside is a fully enclosed run with a mesh roof. Food and water is protected from wild birds but the next stage is to manage the welfare of hens that are normally wholly free range and not used to confinement.

It is worth putting a splash of cider apple vinegar in the water, and a supply of proper grit is a must. In addition to the normal feed, it is then important to provide them with some interest to keep boredom at bay. Old bits of fruit and vegetables to pick at are always popular, and you might consider hanging suet balls in mesh nets for them to peck at.

Robert’s other advice includes:

• House your birds or in some way keep them separate from wild birds.
• Deter wild birds, and consider creating a run outside the hen house.
• Keep feed and water either in the housing or in the run, but exclude wild birds.
• Give them plenty to do otherwise pecking and bullying may become an issue.
• Keep a careful eye on health and if in doubt, call the vet.
• Control rodents. Robert’s two cats do a fine job, but where the wild birds used to pick up uneaten feed, they no longer can, so extra vigilance is needed.
• Water is best provided from a purpose-made drinker not from natural sources that might be shared with wild birds.
• Practice biosecurity. Robert has a designated pair of wellies that never leave the farm, and for the moment will be avoiding contact with all other poultry.
As both the stable and kennels have electric lights, Robert is hoping that egg production will increase to spring levels sooner.

CLA North Rural Surveyor Robert Frewen said: “These recent incidents of this disease and its devastating impact are a sharp reminder to all poultry keepers to instigate measures to minimise the risks to their flocks being infected. Avian flu is a notifiable disease, and we would strongly advise that suspected symptoms be reported to Defra or the Animal & Plant Health Agency.”

Public health advice is that the risk to human health from the virus is very low and food standards bodies advise that avian influenzas pose a very low food safety risk for UK consumers, and it does not affect the consumption of poultry products including eggs.

Signs of avian flu include loss of appetite, swollen heads, discolouration of neck and throat, diarrhoea and fewer eggs laid and respiratory problems.

Members of the public who come across dead wild birds, or suspect bird flu, which is a notifiable disease, in their flock are urged to call the Defra’s Rural Services Helpline on 03000 200 301.