Traditional Christmas dinners could be at risk as avian flu sweeps through poultry farms in England and Wales, farmers have warned.
Britain is currently dealing with the largest outbreak of avian influenza in its history, with more than 3 million birds including chickens, turkeys and ducks culled to stop the spread of the highly infectious disease.
Devon, Cornwall, Suffolk, Norfolk, as well as parts of Somerset and Essex, have been declared bird flu prevention zones, meaning that strict biosecurity measures have been imposed on all bird farmers.
This includes housing and isolating birds away from wild populations and restricting access to farms by visitors.
Stricter curbs could be on the way, with warnings of another uptick in cases where flocks of Migrating birds arrive in the UK and a farmer confesses they were “terrified” for the next few weeks.
Another said many Christmas dinners are ‘already gone’ after slaughtering turkeys after the birds became infected with the virus despite already being held in closed buildings.
Nearly 65,000 turkeys were slaughtered at a farm in Attleborough in Norfolk by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in recent days, according to Agriculture United Kingdom.
Turkeys in Britain were sent into a complete lockdown last winter to control the spread.
This map shows the parts of England currently under additional biosecurity measures to prevent the spread of bird flu.
BIRD FLU: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW
What is? Bird flu is the source of all human flu, as far as we know.
It often passes through another animal, such as a pig, in the process of mutating and adapting to infect us.
Wild birds are carriers, especially through migration.
As they group together to reproduce, the virus spreads rapidly and is then carried to other parts of the world.
The new strains tend to appear first in Asia, from where more than 60 species of shorebirds, waders, and waterfowl, including plovers, woodpeckers, and ducks, make their way to Alaska to breed and mingle with various migratory birds from the Americas. Others go west and infect European species.
What strain is currently spreading?? H5N1.
So far, the new virus has been detected in more than 22 million birds and poultry worldwide since September 2021, double the previous record from the previous year.
The virus is not only spreading at a rapid rate, but it is also killing at an unprecedented rate, leading some experts to say this is the deadliest variant yet.
Millions of chickens have been slaughtered in the UK and last November our poultry industry was closed down which severely affected the availability of free range eggs.
Can it infect people? Yes, but only 860 people have been infected with H5N1 worldwide since 2003 in 18 countries.
The risk to people has been considered “low”.
But people are strongly advised not to touch sick or dead birds because the virus is deadly, killing 53 percent of the people it manages to infect.
Should I be worry? Not particularly.
Poultry farmers and people who handle wild birds are most at risk.
Scientists say there is a small chance that a double infection of avian and seasonal flu could allow the current strain of bird flu to adapt so it can spread between people, but it remains highly unlikely.
DEFRA, which manages animal disease outbreaks in the UK, has not ruled out similar restrictions if cases get out of control.
Some experts have even predicted that a human outbreak of the virus could be “on the horizon.”
Alaistaire Brice, of Havensfield Happy Hens in Hoxne, Suffolk told the BBC Poultry producers faced an almost impossible task in preventing the disease from reaching their flocks.
“You can’t prevent birds from flying over and landing on our chicken range,” he said.
He stated that thousands of turkeys have been slaughtered in the region in recent days, despite the fact that they were already in closed buildings.
These are among the 3.1 million birds culled by authorities since October last year to control the spread of the disease.
Similar outbreaks occurred on turkey farms in Devon and Yorkshire in late August.
The turkeys destined for Christmas dinners hatched in June and are now growing out before being slaughtered for the holiday season.
While DEFRA declines to break down the total slaughter by species, it said the majority were chickens raised for meat and laying hens.
Previous outbreaks of bird flu in Britain have been linked to the annual migration of birds from the continent in the winter months.
But this year’s outbreak has caused the virus to persist in native bird populations through the summer months, with government experts calling the situation “unprecedented.”
The lethality of the current strain also raises alarm among experts regarding its potential to spread to human populations.
Current rules in Britain’s bird flu hotspots say bird owners must keep their flocks isolated from wild birds, with their food and water contained in covered areas where wild species cannot access.
Mark Gorton of Traditional Norfolk Poultry in Shropham, Norfolk, said farmers were “terrified” at the annual migration that traditionally brings the virus to the UK.
“We are absolutely terrified of what will happen when the large numbers of ducks and geese start migrating,” he said.
“We are concerned that it could make things much worse than they already are.”
Ask that domestic birds be vaccinated against the virus.
This is something DEFRA has ruled out for fear it will reduce signs of illness in the birds, allowing the virus to spread before they can be slaughtered.
A DEFRA spokesman said the 3.1 million dead birds are a fraction of the 1 billion consumed by the British public annually, and that there are “no concerns” about Christmas meat supplies.
This map shows outbreaks of avian flu detected in poultry farms and backyard flocks since October of last year. Triangles with black dots indicate the most recent cases.
This map shows the density of avian influenza cases detected in wild birds, with darker red areas indicating higher numbers of cases with black dots showing more recent cases.
Wild bird populations have also been affected by the virus, with 1,672 cases recorded by DEFRA as of September 21, the majority in swans, geese and gannets.
The British public has been advised to avoid wild bird carcasses for fear of contracting the virus.
Although bird flu can be deadly to people, the risk of contracting it from birds or poultry products such as eggs or meat to the general public is considered low.
Poultry farmers and those who handle dead birds, such as slaughterhouse workers, are considered to be most at risk.
Devon man Alan Gosling, 79, was forced to quarantine for three weeks after contracting bird flu in the last weeks of 2021.
He eventually made a full recovery, but was heartbroken after a group of ducks he kept inside his house had to be euthanized after contracting the virus.