Bird flu panic

If you are a poultry farmer with thousands of turkeys, or if you have a couple of hens in your garden, they need to be housed for the next month according to Defra (and the Welsh and Scottish governments too, but not Northern Ireland) to avoid encountering ‘wild birds’ carrying a new strain of bird flu (or poultry flu as we might wish to call it) H5N8.

If you read the papers you’ll pretty much get a regurgitation of the Defra press release and line (see here). It’s unspecified ‘wild birds’ that get the blame for the spread of this disease.  Slightly surprisingly (to me anyway), the Daily Express seems to be covering this news better than most proper papers (see here and here).

Defra’s grasp of the biology of wild birds seems to remain at its usual abysmal level. A case in Hungary in early November where Highly Pathogenic H5N8 virus was isolated from ‘a pooled samples’ (sic) of six wild birds, 5 ‘ducks’ and a ‘seagull’, was one of the earliest cases. There are, as readers of this blog will probably know, a few dozen species of ducks which might be found in Hungary at that time of year and each of them will have come from a wide breeding area and might be travelling onward to a wide wintering area with very different possibilities of arriving anywhere near the UK. There are a few gull species too! Vets and virologists are highly specific about which strain of virus they are dealing with (I’m glad to say) but incredibly vague about the dead duck that someone had in their hands from which they isolated the virus. It’s the usual shocking treatment of the biology of an infectious disease whose biological details of transmission are important in understanding and dealing with the issue.  It comes to something that whenever Defra writes or talks about wildlife they sound as though they don’t have a clue. It inspires a massive lack of confidence in their competence.

There are now upwards of 150 recent cases of wild birds being found dead and apparently carrying the relevant virus.  The infected species include Tufted Duck and Pochard, Mute Swans, ‘various gulls’, ‘grebes’, Coots, Curlews and ‘some raptor species’. It’s an interesting list. The chances of a Tufted Duck directly transmitting a virus to a domestic, even a free-range, turkey seem rather low.  But I’m not saying that wild birds aren’t important vectors of H5N8, it’s just that we always go through this same story of it being wild birds, with poor, in fact awful, data on the wild birds concerned, and very little emphasis being given to movements of live and dead domestic birds. Some of us will remember the case of the lorry loads of partially processed turkey meat that were arriving at a Bernard Matthews farm in a previous serious UK outbreak of H5N1 bird flu; wild birds were blamed by Defra for that outbreak until the truth emerged rather belatedly (see Fighting for Birds pp238-43).

It is interesting that many of the commercial outbreaks seem to be from large premises with thousands of birds and scattered across a wide range of countries including Austria, Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Sweden.

One of the more interesting cases appears to be that closest to the UK, in the Pas de Calais, where ‘wild ducks’ were found to have the virus. But these ‘wild ducks’ were being used by wildfowlers as calling birds to attract wild birds into range, and so were captive ‘wild birds’ or as some might say, including the ducks themselves, captive birds. And indeed captive birds which were moved from a domestic situation to the wild and back again deliberately many times. In a fantastic Defra example of Newspeak this case is described as follows: ‘In France (Pas de Calais region and the closest case to the UK), captive decoy ducks tested positive. These birds are considered wild birds as they are sedentary and not associated with any commercial poultry’.  



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13 Replies to “Bird flu panic”

  1. yesterday morning's interview on radio 4 with (I think) the chief Vet was great - there was silence and then admission that they would NOT be policing the 'keep your birds in' rule. They also implied that migration had now just started and would carry on for a few days, hence the 30 day curfew.....well worth a listen back (must have been between 6 and 7.15am as thats when I went out). We also had a thread on our county bird forum yesterday, and here is a quote from one of our county birders who works/understands bird trade, etc.

    " remarkable how the same old lies and misinformation are coming around with a new strain of avian influenza. The myth about wild birds being the vector for spreading the last strain to cause panic (H5N1) was put about by the poultry industry to cover their bioinsecure practices - I haven't followed the latest strain's movements, but H5N1 went from "biosecure" factory to "biosecure" factory across continents - we were quite literally able to predict the arrival of H5N1 in Africa (Egypt, Niger Republic and Nigeria) based on reports as to which countries were smuggling in day old chickens. Most media reports said it was migrating birds. When a well-known chicken producer factory in Suffolk suffered an outbreak of H5N1, I suggested to a Channel 4 reporter he looked into whether it had links to factories in Hungary where an outbreak of H5N1 had just occurred. And, surprise, surprise, guess where the Suffolk birds are sent for slaughtering and processing? Yes, the very same factories in Hungary. A useful map appeared showing the link on that evening's Channel 4 news. And who did the Environment Minister at the time blame? Migrating birds of course "

    1. Well I plan on helping cull at least one goose in the next week or so. Solving the problem one roast at a time.

  2. If a free range turkey farmer locks his birds up where do supermarkets etc stand on labelling of those birds?

  3. So domestic livestock needs to be taken in doors? What about all those pheasants? Surely if they merit protection from buzzards, they merit protection from avian influenza?

    1. I did find the following.....

      Pheasants, partridges and other game birds
      Birds should be housed whenever possible. As a minimum, all feeding should take place under cover. Specialist advice is available from representative organisations and the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA)

      Feeders should be being brought under cover...

      This looks like there is a de facto ban on pheasant and red-leg shooting

      1. sadly no.

        There is no ban on releasing 40 million or so pheasants or even feeding them. Game birds that have been released ( or even in release pens) are regarded as wild birds and don't need to be housed - and they can continue to be fed. Defra rules states that Reasonable Efforts must be made to minimise the chance of other wild birds from accessing their food and water.

        What such "reasonable efforts" should be, is not stated. Can we imagine gamekeepers across the land running up and down shooing "other wild birds" away from every pheasant feeders in the land? I think we should be told.

        This is a massive open barn door in Defra's biosecurity rules.

        1. "Can we imagine gamekeepers across the land running up and down shooing "other wild birds" away from every pheasant feeders in the land?"

          Insert a "t" in "shooing" and suddenly it's not that hard to imagine!

        2. I did cut and paste from the government advice page. The game birds are livestock when they are being fed in and around pens.... otherwise they could not get the buzzard licences...
          If they carry on shooting, they are deliberately driving these birds into contact with the wild populations...... contrary to the notice.

  4. Ah well, once we have clawed back control of our borders from those pesky europeans then we can stop this unwanted uncontrolled migration and screen for those we do want.
    Won't be a points based system, maybe webbed-ness of feet?

  5. this is worth a look

    looks like a live regularly updated bird flu map. There are a lot of wild birds on here - from some random clicking it seems many are mute swans. And some White-tailed Sea-eagles in Finland. I also think some of the cases are unconfirmed.

  6. In 2008 my daughter, who is not remotely interested in birds (despite my efforts!), was a lowly functionary in a minor branch of the civil service. She was at a meeting with 'experts' from DEFRA who were discussing an outbreak of avian flu and were alarmed by its appearance at Abbotsbury swannery. They predicted that this would mean the contagion would be rapidly spread by the swans which would soon be migrating across the country. My daughter, somewhat bravely I think, pointed out that this was not so as the birds were Mute Swans which generally didn't move very far from home, unlike their wild cousins. She did then check by phone with her "old man" that this was so during a convenient coffee break but it was interesting that she was the only person in the room who seemed to have the remotest idea! Interesting what your children pick up by osmosis as I doubt that she was secretly reading the BWP when I was out.


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