Source: Alamy 

 The government’s chief vet put the number at 500,000 birds less than two weeks ago

At least 1.7 million birds have now been culled across the UK in response to the bird flu crisis, according to estimates by the British Free Range Egg Producers Association.

Of that number, over 800,000 were listed as free range and over 700,000 labelled colony. However, the total number of birds culled is likely to be far higher, as the estimates, which date from Friday, cover the egg industry only.

Earlier this month the government’s chief vet, Christine Middlemiss, put the number of birds culled at around half a million.

Defra said on Friday that 53 cases of bird flu had now been reported across the UK but declined to give an update on culling numbers.

Last week the British Poultry Council warned the poultry sector’s ongoing labour crisis had exacerbated concerns over the UK’s “worst ever” bird flu outbreak, after Middlemiss warned the country was in the grip of a “phenomenal level” of the disease.

Keepers have been required by law since 29 November “to keep birds indoors and to follow strict biosecurity measures to limit the spread of and eradicate the disease”.

BPC CEO Richard Griffiths said the outbreak was by far the most severe seen in the country and had been further impacted by shortages of workers across the poultry supply chain.

“Resources to deal with this situation are already stretched. We’re seeing particular shortages of vets and bird catchers,” he said, noting how vets were having to isolate for a period as they moved around producers.

“If we’re not careful, this will soon start to affect production.”

Free-range producers could be among the hardest hit if the housing order was maintained into the new year, though birds can be housed for up to four months without farmers having to cede free-range status.