Farmers have culled 3.5million birds this year – nearly a third of the country’s production – in the face of the ‘Covid of the poultry industry’ and have been ordered to keep flocks on lockdown to prevent ‘catastrophic’ outbreaks.
Widespread infection means Christmas shortages of turkey is a real possibility, so farmers are killing their birds early to prevent them catching the H5N1 virus and guarantee they will be available on December 25.
From November 7, birdkeepers must keep flocks housed ‘until further notice’, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs bosses ruled.
The legal requirement comes amid the ‘rapid escalation’ of avian influenza cases in farms and backyard birds, with the UK logging 80 cases this month.
Richard Griffiths, chief executive of the British Poultry Council, told BBC Radio 4’s Today the housing order allows farmers to kill and freeze their birds much earlier than usual.
The birds will have to be clearly labelled that they have been frozen.
Farmers are killing their turkeys early and freezing them for Christmas so they don’t catch avian flu – the virus has caused 3.5million turkeys to be culled in the UK this year
The UK produces roughly 11million turkeys every year, but almost a third of those have been culled due to the spread of the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus strain in 2022
From November 7, all birdkeepers in Britain must follow strict measures by law to protect flocks from bird flu, including keeping free range birds in fenced areas and stringent biosecurity for staff on farms. The map shows the prevention zone (red), where mandatory housing is already in place (purple) and the areas under a 10km surveillance zone (yellow)
Farmer Steve Childerhouse, 51, told of his heartbreak at being forced to cull his entire flock of 10,000 turkeys destined for UK Christmas dinner tables
Farmer Steve Childerhouse, 51, told of his heartbreak at being forced to cull his flock of 10,000 turkeys destined for Christmas dinner tables.
Mr Childerhouse, who rears birds on his 35-acre Whews Farm in Norfolk, said producers had been ‘absolutely hammered’ by the spread of the highly pathogenic virus.
And he told families they may struggle to get hold of turkeys and geese this winter as the usual stock levels are ‘just not going to be there’ and as his premises needs to be empty for 12 months as a result, he may not be able to produce next Christmas either.
He said: ‘We are a traditional fresh farm, but even the big people are getting absolutely hammered by this. It’s affecting the whole industry.
‘We supply a lot of butchers and farm shops, and we’ve told them we haven’t got any. They’re not selling any turkeys or geese this Christmas as they can’t get them.
‘It’s going to have a massive impact on the Christmas market because they’re just not going to be there.’
And Mr Childerhouse warned farms like his would not even be able to rear birds for next Christmas as his farm has to be left empty for 12 months following the outbreak.
Paul Kelly, director of KellyBronze Turkeys, told Farming Today that ‘this is the Covid of the poultry industry, except it is far more pathogenic’.
He added that without a a vaccine there would be severe repercussions – including farmers not growing Christmas poultry next year.
Mr Childerhouse said: ‘Because we obviously got it at the end of October, we can’t touch our buildings for 12 months – and we get our birds in June and take them through to Christmas’
The highly contagious virus — which experts fear could jump to humans and trigger another pandemic — usually dies out in the summer. Yet this year, avian influenza has persisted all-year round
Thawing out a frozen turkey may be a common occurrence this Christmas, as farmers take measures to avoid their flocks falling ill to avian flu
James Mottershead, National Union for Farmers (NFU) poultry board chairman, told MailOnline: ‘The British poultry sector has experienced a very difficult year and continues to suffer from the ongoing threat of avian influenza. We are also working against soaring energy and input costs which are impacting farms across the country.
‘Turkey producers are doing all they can to protect the health and welfare of their birds at this difficult time and are working hard to maintain production levels despite outbreaks of avian influenza, especially as we approach Christmas.
‘As avian influenza persists, vigilance is key and maintaining stringent biosecurity measures are vital for all bird keepers, whether a professional poultry farmer or someone who keeps a small number of hens in their garden.’
A government spokesman said on Friday the UK had so far faced 200 cases of bird flu over the past 12 months.
The Food Standards Agency advised that avian influenzas pose a very low food safety risk for UK consumers. Properly cooked poultry and eggs are safe to eat, it said.
Across Europe more than 47million birds have been slaughtered to stop the outbreak.
For the first time, the H5N1 bird flu virus did not die off in the summer in wild bird populations, but carried on being infectious, leading to mass deaths of birds, from red kites to puffins and skuas, government officials said.
Scientists think the virus has mutated in a way that makes it tougher — and survive longer in the environment on surfaces or in water — although further research is needed.
Bird flu outbreak: Everything you need to know
What is it?
Bird flu is an infectious type of influenza that spreads among birds.
In rare cases, it can be transmitted to humans through close contact with a dead or alive infected bird.
This includes touching infected birds, their droppings or bedding. People can also catch bird flu if they kill or prepare infected poultry for eating.
Wild birds are carriers, especially through migration.
As they cluster together to breed, the virus spreads rapidly and is then carried to other parts of the globe.
New strains tend to appear first in Asia, from where more than 60 species of shore birds, waders and waterfowl, including plovers, godwits and ducks, head off to Alaska to breed and mix with various migratory birds from the Americas. Others go west and infect European species.
What strain is currently spreading?
So far the new virus has been detected in some 80million birds and poultry globally since September 2021 — double the previous record the year before.
Not only is the virus spreading at speed, it is also killing at an unprecedented level, leading some experts to say this is the deadliest variant so far.
Millions of chickens in the UK have been culled and last November the poultry industry was put into lockdown, heavily affecting the availability of free-range eggs.
Can it infect people?
Yes, but just 864 people have been infected with H5N1 globally since 2003 from 20 countries.
The risk to people has been deemed ‘low’.
But people are strongly urged not to touch sick or dead birds because the virus is lethal, killing 53 per cent of people it does manage to infect.