All captive birds will be legally required to be kept indoors from 7 November 

Defra has announced a national bird housing order for England, with more than a third of the UK’s free-range festive turkey flock now lost to the country’s worst-ever outbreak of avian flu.

As of next Monday (7 November), all bird keepers will be legally required to keep their animals indoors and follow “stringent biosecurity measures to help protect their flocks from the disease, regardless of type or size”, Defra said.

The order extends the mandatory housing measures already in force in the bird flu hotspots of Suffolk, Norfolk and parts of Essex, and follows an increase in the national risk of bird flu in wild birds to ‘very high’.

More than 200 cases of bird flu have now been confirmed across the UK since late October 2021. The disease had been detected at more than 70 premises since the beginning of October 2022 alone, while there had been “multiple reports” in wild birds, Defra said.

Introducing a national housing order for England was welcomed by British Poultry Council CEO Richard Griffiths, who was among many in the egg and poultry sectors to call for the measure in recent weeks.

Christmas turkey flocks decimated as ‘worst ever’ bird flu outbreak looms

“I hope Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland follow, any small reduction in risk is welcome,” Griffiths said, before adding that up to 35% of the UK’s free-range turkey flock had now been lost to the outbreak.

“That part of the sector has been hit very hard, though indoor-reared producers have been OK-ish so far,” Griffiths added.

“Avian flu just adds to the many cost of production challenges producers have been facing,” he added. “There are now big question marks over whether many seasonal free-range turkey producers will take the risk or sit next year’s production out.”

Griffiths’ comments follow warnings – reported a fortnight ago by The Grocer – that at least 300,000 of the UK’s 4.5 million-strong festive turkey flock had already been lost to bird flu by mid-October, placing this Christmas’ supplies at risk. Some smaller retailers and butchers’ shops were already struggling to source supply, said Kelly Turkeys MD Paul Kelly.

It comes as Defra announced it would introduce a temporary easement to marketing rules last Friday that would allow turkey, goose and duck producers to slaughter their flocks early so they can be frozen, before being defrosted and sold as fresh in the run-up to Christmas.

The move – part of a support package that also included improvements to compensation packages for producers forced to cull bird flu-infected flocks – followed the introduction of an avian influenza prevention zone, with tightened biosecurity measures, earlier this month across the UK.

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“We are now facing the largest-ever outbreak of bird flu and are seeing a rapid escalation in the number of cases on commercial farms and in backyard birds across England,” said chief vet Dr Christine Middlemiss.

“The risk of kept birds being exposed to disease has reached a point where it is now necessary for all birds to be housed until further notice,” she added.

“Scrupulous biosecurity and separating flocks in all ways from wild birds remain the best forms of defence. Whether you keep just a few birds or thousands, from Monday 7 November onwards you must keep yours indoors. This decision has not been taken lightly, but it is the best way to protect your birds from this highly infectious disease.”

A prolonged housing order would mean products such as free-range eggs would eventually need special dispensation to continue to be sold as free-range. Last winter’s bird flu outbreak ultimately led producers and retailers to have to place stickers on packs and on supermarket shelves to denote the fact birds had laid eggs while housed indoors.