The UK is battling its worst-ever outbreak of avian flu after a cull of poultry failed to halt the spread of the virus brought in by migratory birds.
The outbreak, which has forced chicken farmers to destroy 500,000 animals, has reached 40 sites in the UK and is another blow to the sector that was already struggling with labour shortages and cost inflation.
The “highly pathogenic” strain present in the UK causes serious illness and death in chickens. As well as potential cull orders, infected sites face restrictions on their exports to the EU.
George Eustice, UK environment secretary, told the House of Commons on Thursday that the virus had hit particularly hard this year. “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.”
Christine Middlemiss, the country’s chief veterinary officer, said she was “very concerned”. She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the number of infected premises was “a very high number for the time for year [compared with] anything we’ve seen before”.
This was due to the high levels of infection in the migratory wild bird population, which she said was “really concerning because those birds will stay with us over winter until spring and the risk of infection remains”.
But she said the cull so far should be put in perspective. “For those keepers concerned, it’s really devastating . . . in terms of food supply it’s actually a small number.”
Richard Griffiths, chief executive of the British Poultry Council, said that because of Brexit all poultry producers in restricted zones, where infections have been identified, faced a temporary ban on exports to the EU.
“Since we’ve become a third country to the EU, it’s become even more challenging — those controls don’t exist for members of the EU,” he said, adding that the commercial impact “would become clear further down the line”.
The UK produces about 1bn chickens each year, of which 19 per cent are exported, according to the BPC.
The risk to humans from the H5N1 strain present in the country was “very low”, the government said, while cautioning that anyone finding a dead or sick bird should call its helpline rather than touch the creature.
All bird keepers in the UK have been required to keep birds indoors and follow strict biosecurity measures since November 29. Griffiths said this was “standard practice” for big commercial producers, but “it’s much more difficult to extend that right down to smallholdings and pets”.
He added that there was little risk to traditional Christmas dinners, however, since most small turkey producers had already slaughtered and hung their birds, while commercial producers would complete that process in about a week.
Turkey producers had been able to pluck and process their birds after about 3,000 overseas workers took advantage of temporary visas issued by the UK government to help deal with post-Brexit labour shortages, said Griffiths.
Likewise, the outbreak had not so far threatened overall poultry production. “We are talking parts of people’s livelihoods, so it has a financial and emotional impact . . . but there is no reason to think it will have an impact on overall production,” he added.