People aren’t the only ones being cooped up indoors during this pandemic. Poultry are also in lockdown, as the UK faces its largest ever outbreak of avian influenza – more commonly known as bird flu.

This is a highly infectious type of influenza that spreads easily among birds. In rare cases – with the accent on VERY rare – it can affect humans who may have been in extremely close contact with infected birds or their surroundings. You won’t catch it off eggs or meat from chicken, so no need to run into a blind panic.

Since November last year, UK bird keepers have been on high alert as cases of the H5N8 strain began to spread across mainland Europe, carried by infected wild birds migrating for the winter. Previous strains have led to a number of deaths across the globe, but this current strain in circulation has not infected any humans worldwide to date.

However, we must heed warnings from the Covid-19 pandemic – where it is suspected that an animal to human transmission took place – the UK should be on high alert for mutations which could lead to another devastating disease outbreak.

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The current pandemic came as a shock to many, but scientists have been predicting a global disease outbreak for many years. In 2017, scientists in California began preparing for the possibility of a disease outbreak caused by a mutation of the bird flu virus which could potentially spread from human to human. Their research on the bird flu virus found it was relatively easy for the virus to make a single mutation, but three mutations were needed for it to become highly infectious and infiltrate human lungs – unlikely, but possible.

For now, the bird flu outbreak in the UK may pose a very low risk to human health, however, with the frequent changes in the viral strain, there is the constant fear that one of the mutations could lead to a strain that can spread easily amongst people, with the potential to lead to a new global pandemic of an unimaginable scale.

With that in mind, it should be treated with the utmost seriousness when it comes to employing strict biosecurity measures to limit the contact of wild birds with domestic ones in an effort to stop the spread.

In late October, there were a number of confirmed reports of bird flu in wild birds including geese and swans in the Netherlands and north of Germany. These wild birds were believed to be on the waterfowl flyway from breeding grounds in western Russia, where the H5N8 strain was reported in poultry in mid-October.

HeraldScotland:

The first case of the H5N8 strain confirmed in the UK was at a farm in Cheshire on November 2. All 13,000 birds were culled, and 3km and 10km control zones were put in place around the infected site to limit the risk of the disease spreading. Hundreds of thousands of birds have been culled since, in a string of outbreaks UK-wide, including a flock of chickens from the Orkneys, on the island of Sanday.

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In mid-December, the department for environment, food and rural affairs (Defra) announced a nationwide lockdown for all poultry, which included chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese, partridges, quails, guinea fowl, pheasants and pigeons bred for meat.

Last week, a warning was issued by the British Free Range Egg Producers Association that all poultry keepers – from the largest commercial poultry units, through to the smallest backyard flocks of hens – must stick to the rules and house their birds indoors, in order to avoid a disaster.

Poultry keepers with fewer than 50 birds aren’t legally obliged to register them with Defra, however there are many bird keepers who are not aware of the current outbreak and housing restrictions, and the risk it poses to the wider poultry sector. Reports have emerged that many hobby breeders are not following their legal obligation to house their birds, which could increase their chances of coming in to contact with wild birds.

Interest in pet hens grew 10-fold during lockdown, with many families seeking a slice of the "good life" with more time being spent at home and a surge in demand for home produced eggs – to avoid the shortages which were experienced in supermarkets in the early stages of lockdown panic buying.

According to the British Hen Welfare Trust, many weekends in 2020 saw over 4,000 ex-battery hens rehomed, which gives a real indication of the heightened number of hobby breeders that now exist in the UK. But that means we have a whole host of new bird enthusiasts, full of good intentions but with little past experience or knowledge of what poultry keeping involves – and that includes taking diseases like bird flu into account.

Those who fail to comply with the current lockdown restrictions could not only face a prison sentence of up to six months and an unlimited fine, but could be putting other poultry keepers at risk, increasing the chances of whole flocks of birds being culled.

Industry experts have warned that if the highly pathogenic strain continues to spread, the disease could decimate the egg and meat sectors. On Saturday, the most recent case of bird flu was confirmed at a small commercial premises near Redcar and Cleveland in the North-east of England.

It is a sobering thought when comparing the two outbreaks, coronavirus and bird flu, that the former could have been slowed in its tracks if only the UK Government had acted swiftly to enforce restrictions on travel into the UK in the early stages of lockdown.

Bird flu, however, is a disease that knows no borders and it is up to UK bird keepers to ensure this current strain isn’t allowed to devastate the poultry sector, and in the worst-case scenario, mutate and ignite another devastating global pandemic.

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