‘With the poultry world having to react to the return of Avian Flu (AI) again this winter, there are worries that there could be a long-term impact on the world of poultry breed conservation. To counter this, some experts are recommending that poultry keepers should accept that this will be a recurring event and so plan accordingly.’

Globally, AI has been seen to be a problem mostly in the developing, rather than western, world. However, whilst Defra and the Animal and Plant Health Agency do their best to keep the disease out, it is impossible to prevent it. It makes its way into the UK with migrating wild birds and can all-to-easily be transferred to domesticated birds. Whilst there are AI vaccines, these have their limitations and in the UK the vaccination of poultry and most captive birds against AI is not currently permitted.

During the autumn of 2021 there were multiple findings of the highly pathogenic strain of HPA1 H5N1 in wild birds and following its confirmation in poultry, the UK was declared no longer free from AI under the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) rules. This led to an Avian Influenza Prevention Zone (APIZ) being declared across Great Britain on November 3 requiring all bird keepers by law to take a range of biosecurity precautions. It also brought in a ban on all gatherings. A further requirement was imposed from November 29, making housing mandatory.

Welfare concerns

Theoretically, the imposition of AI measures should not have an adverse impact on the conservation of rare breed poultry, but the requirement to permanently house birds during an AI outbreak is a major welfare concern for many. The focus of RBST’s poultry conservation work is to encourage breeders to set up new breeding groups and to preserve the birds’ utility qualities – production for meat and eggs. Birds will generally be, to a lesser or greater degree, free ranging and some keepers have already voiced concerns over the welfare aspect of permanently housing birds who are used to an outdoor life.

Ian and Brenda Waterman of Heritage Turkeys have dedicated many years to the conservation of native turkey breeds and work hard to encourage new breeders. Ian says: “It is easy to be alarmist but many of the measures required don’t involve much more than being a sensible keeper and practising good husbandry. The key thing is not to get into the situation where you suddenly find you have to thin your numbers to meet a housing order.

“Keepers should routinely plan for lockdown by making sure that they have housing available that is appropriate to the number of birds kept. Some birds used to free ranging don’t cope well with sudden enclosing, but on the whole birds will adapt. We bring our turkeys in at night anyway, to protect against foxes, and we ‘train’ youngsters by going into the pens from time to time with a blue bucket with corn in it. The birds get used to following the bucket and will happily follow when you want to bring them in. Good husbandry doesn’t just happen, it’s how you manage your flock.”

A fact of life

RBST Trustee and poultry enthusiast Tom Davis is another who believes that AI should be regarded by the poultry world as a fact of life rather than an intermittent occurrence. As well as being a breeder in his own right, as manager of Mudchute City Farm, Tom has responsibility for the farm’s poultry. He says: “Last year, when we were looking to introduce new poultry housing, I decided to build pens that would be compliant with AI restrictions on the assumption of having to comply with a housing order.”

“The birds are outside but in fully netted pens and we’ve used more robust fine metal netting to prevent tears that could allow wild birds in. We only feed inside the housing – again to protect from droppings from wild birds. With the waterfowl, the geese give us the greatest challenge because they are not great at being kept in for any length of time. However, we have created covered breeding pens to make sure they can run about, whilst remaining protected.”

Lack of shows

Tom is also a keen poultry exhibitor and the other aspect of AI measures that worries him is the lack of shows and sales which, he says, not only bring existing breeders together, they also provide a showcase for people, particularly youngsters, getting into poultry breeding.

Again last year, with the poultry showing season barely underway, APIZ led to the immediate cancellation of shows, including the Poultry Club of Great Britain’s National Championship Poultry and Egg Show. With this year’s National cancelled, the Poultry Club felt it necessary to look to changing its plans for next year. Announcing that the 2022 National will be brought forward by two months, Poultry Club Chairman Lee Grant said: “We, as a fancy, have no other option in the medium-term but to bring shows forwards. Many channels, such as vaccines and additional biosecurity are being explored. However, I am not confident that they can be approved in the short-term and I am fearful for the future of pure-bred poultry if the show does not go ahead.”

Lee adds: “The measures taken by Defra were really devastating and I am concerned that if we continue to lose shows in this way, we will lose numbers and important bloodlines of the best poultry in the UK. The show season is critical and because adult birds are in peak condition between November and January, it coincides with the potential bird-flu season.

While some may argue that the lack of shows will only affect the ‘Fancy’ – those breeders who are aiming for championship row – as Lee Grants points out, loss of shows also means the loss of a marketplace for breeders and potential breeders: “It is important to realise that shows are not just about the competitions themselves. They provide opportunities for breeders to exchange or sell birds, ensuring that the genetics are widespread.”

Loss of members

The Poultry Club has already seen an impact on its membership. Lee says: “There was a bird lockdown in 2020 but it’s fair to say that we didn’t really notice this as we were too busy thinking about the human lockdown. Although our membership dropped by around 20% because there were no shows, people did continue to breed in good numbers. Membership numbers picked up again in 2021 and we can’t afford to risk losing members again so we feel we have to bring shows forward.” Lee also echoes Tom Davis’s concern about the lack of opportunity to attract young people into the poultry world, saying: “Shows give youngsters the opportunity to see what is involved and choose the breed they would like to support - in 2020, without shows, the Poultry Club’s opportunity to recruit new junior members was severely impacted and this will be repeated again in the 2021/2022 show season.”

An earlier show season means that birds will need to be in show condition earlier; the natural breeding cycle sees birds hatching in April/May and growing over the summer to get to the right size. Adult breeding birds moult during the summer months and so will not be in peak condition until late autumn. Lee Grant says: “We have got to work with the authorities and follow the rules, but we would urge poultry keepers to plan their breeding programmes early, breed in responsible numbers and organise their set-up so that they are able to meet a housing order without having to cull birds. Above all, we have to safeguard our bloodlines."