What’s happening with bird flu this year?
As you may be aware, the situation regarding avian influenza has been changing significantly over the last few years, and in none more so than this year. In previous years, bird flu was a concern mainly in the colder months, when it could be brought in by migratory birds coming to Scottish shores to spend the winter. This changed somewhat in the summer of 2021, when outbreaks of bird flu were unexpectedly seen in limited seabird colonies in the north and west, in species which arrived in Scotland to spend the summer. However, the biggest changes were seen this summer, when avian influenza detection in wild birds has been very widespread across many more species and locations than were seen previously, affecting thousands of wild birds on both islands and the Scottish mainland.
We cannot know exactly what effects or distribution of bird flu we will see this winter in Scotland, but we should all be aware that the risk of local outbreaks affecting those with poultry may be more likely this year, and that these may occur in areas which had previously been only occasionally affected, or not at all. Vigilance and good biosecurity is absolutely essential this year for all poultry keepers.
What do I need to do?
An avian influenza prevention zone (AIPZ) was already declared this autumn, which legally requires poultry keepers to adhere to enhanced biosecurity measures. This includes even those with very small numbers of poultry kept as pets rather than production animals. The list of birds which are classed as poultry includes:
- guinea fowl
If you have 50 or more of these birds (combined), registration with DEFRA is compulsory at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/poultry-including-game-birds-registration-rules-and-forms . However, you can also register voluntarily if you have fewer than 50 birds; this comes with the advantage that you will automatically receive updates if there is bird flu in your local area.
Information on the enhanced biosecurity measures that poultry keepers are required to adhere to during a Prevention Zone order can be found here: www.gov.scot/publications/avian-influenza-bird-flu/documents/ . This page includes a handy summary poster, as well as a written guide specifically for small keepers. The enhanced biosecurity measures are intended to reduce the risk to poultry from infected wild birds and their droppings or other body fluids, and to ensure that spread of disease between poultry flocks by visiting friends, neighbours or workers with their own poultry flocks is prevented.
The latest updated news about avian influenza in Scotland can be found at: https://www.gov.scot/publications/avian-influenza-bird-flu/?utm_source=redirect&utm_medium=shorturl&utm_campaign=avianinfluenza
How do I spot avian influenza in my birds?
There are two types of bird flu. One, called Low Pathogenic, may be less easy to spot, as the symptoms (known as “clinical signs” in animals and birds) may be mild. An infected flock could show respiratory signs like coughing, sneezing or wheezing; diarrhoea; or they may eat less food or produce fewer eggs. The latter, in particular, is unlikely to be visible in small flocks with no artificial light over winter, since the hens will have stopped laying anyway. If you suspect that your flock is generally unwell, you should contact a vet for advice immediately. If you are suspicious of bird flu in particular, you should contact your local APHA field office.
Highly Pathogenic avian influenza is usually more obvious, but be aware that signs may still be mild or not present in waterfowl like your geese and ducks. This is why keepers are advised to keep their geese and ducks away from their other poultry like chickens, turkeys and guinea fowl when bird flu is a risk, because your waterfowl can act as “carriers” without clinical signs in some cases. Highly Pathogenic bird flu is often an outbreak with a high death rate in poultry, with respiratory distress, diarrhoea, and sometimes a blue colour to the comb and wattles. Bird usually look very dull and sick, don’t eat properly and stop laying, if they were still doing so before they became infected. They may be weak and wobbly or twitchy. A sudden outbreak of serious illness like this in your flock should always mean an immediate call to your vet, or to the APHA field office if you cannot reach your vet. Not all cases will be bird flu, as other serious diseases do cause problems occasionally, but either way, veterinary advice will be essential for the welfare of your poultry.
Bird flu is a notifiable disease: notifiable diseases are a small collection of diseases that animal and bird keepers are legally required to notify the APHA about immediately, if there is any suspicion that their stock or pets might have one.
Am I legally required to house my poultry just now?
At the time of going to print: not yet. However, owners should be on the lookout for any update to the AIPZ throughout the winter on the Scottish Government website or through the APHA poultry updates, as the AIPZ may yet develop further to include another Housing Order. There are regionally-specific Housing Orders already in England, and the potential for a regionally-specific Housing Order to affect your area, or for another nationwide Housing Order to be put in place, should be considered as a possibility at all times.
Preparations should be made to ensure that, if a Housing Order is put in place, your poultry can be moved under cover with minimal stress to both birds and owners. These preparations could range from clearing out a suitable outbuilding, shed, garage or polytunnel in case it is needed, to the purchase of a tarpaulin to cover an existing basic run, fruit cage or other netted or fenced area in the garden or on the holding. The ideal solution for your situation will depend on the size of your flock, the local weather conditions and the extent of your premises’ exposure to these elements. The use of plastic storage boxes to construct a dustbath, offcuts of wood to construct more perches in the run, or the use of hanging food items e.g. vegetables such as cabbages (which have not been in a kitchen) or poultry treat blocks, can help to dispel boredom and reduce bullying between confined hens.
Finally, if you see obviously sick or dead wild birds in your area, do not touch them and do not attempt to transport any sick wild birds for treatment. Instead, call the DEFRA avian influenza helpline to report them on 03459 33 55 77. If these wild birds meet the requirements for bird flu sampling, the helpline will arrange for someone to come out to pick up any carcases, so make sure to report the location of dead or sick birds as accurately as possible. Map references or What3Words locations can help.
Caroline Robinson, BVMS, MRCVS
Veterinary Investigation Officer
SRUC Veterinary Services | 5 Bertha Park View | Perth | Perthshire | PH1 3FZ | Tel: +44 (0)1738 505061 (direct line) or 01738 629167 (Central and South East Veterinary Services) | Email: Caroline.Robinson@sruc.ac.uk | Web: www.sruc.ac.uk
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