Last week, the Scottish Government ordered that all poultry and captive birds must be kept indoors for 30 days, if appropriate and practicable, after an alert over avian influenza. Here, North Uist based veterinary epidemiologist Selene Huntley explains why the lockdown in place until 6th January 2017 is essential…
So we have all been told by the government to move our poultry indoors. Not an easy feat for some, especially for those of us that are new to keeping poultry and therefore don’t have a ready-to-go system in place. I am rather more used to giving this sort of advice to curb animal disease, rather than taking it myself, so thought I could impart some of my knowledge to any fellow newbie backyard poultry owners out there of why this measure, although inconvenient, is completely necessary.
The reason for these stringent requirements is that a strain of bird flu virus has been steadily marching across much of Europe and beyond over recent months, leaving wild birds dead in its wake and resulting in compulsory slaughter of infected commercial flocks on the continent in an attempt to prevent it from spreading amongst domestic poultry.
Should this strain, known as H5N8, arrive in the UK, it would be bad news for the commercial poultry industry and backyard poultry alike. At the moment, the most likely source of infection is wild birds of any species, with the highest risk coming from migrating birds, hence the reason why your birds need to be tucked in safely inside even before it arrives on our shores, if indeed it does. There is no point in closing the stable door after the horse has bolted, as they say.
This strain of bird flu is a different strain to those that are usually associated with human disease and is therefore currently assigned as low risk to humans. That said, flu strains are notorious for mutating so it’s always necessary to be cautious and keep good hygiene measures when handling poultry.
This is not the first time that poultry owners have been asked to take this action, nor will it be the last. If you are thinking of keeping poultry, it’s worth sparing a forethought as to how you would house your birds for these occasions when they do need to be kept indoors. So how can you house your birds practically in an emergency? Ideally you would keep them in their chicken coop, if big enough, or you could keep them in their coop as usual at night and perhaps move them into cages in a garage or shed during the day so that they have bit more room to move about (extra-large dog crates with some of your usual chicken bedding in would do the job for a handful of hens, although a bit messy).
We are lucky in that we have a garden shed which we have hurriedly converted to a more spacious hen-house for a month. For anyone considering moving birds into your own home as a makeshift solution, this is not an option, least of all your kitchen, as poultry can carry some harmful bacteria that you really don’t want to consume with your afternoon tea and biscuits!
There will be some of you who genuinely have nowhere to move your poultry. The government stipulates that in these cases, all possible measures be taken to ensure that birds do not come into contact with wild birds (and this includes their droppings). In these cases, as an absolute minimum, runs would need to have a solid roof to prevent wild bird droppings from falling into the coop and have small-aperture chicken-wire walls such that no small birds can get in or out. However, this sort of approach is a bit ‘leaky’ as there is the potential for small critters such as mice and voles to move infected droppings in on their feet. It may sound far-fetched but these are feasible ways in which this virus could spread.
Whatever approach you use, it is also necessary to implement strict biosecurity measures such as disinfecting shoes (for example in a foot bath) when entering or leaving the run or area around the coop, keeping disinfectant fresh and at the correct concentration and making sure no vermin can get access to poultry feed or water.
These regulations are to be implemented for 30 days, until 6th January 2017, but please see the Scottish Government website and the DEFRA website for up to date information.
Selene Huntley worked as a vet in practice before becoming interested in the ‘bigger picture’ of animal disease, subsequently working as a veterinary epidemiologist in government and academia. She currently works freelance from her home in North Uist.