Yesterday, it was confirmed that the strain of bird flu present on a duck breeding farm in Yorkshire was the same as that discovered in the Netherlands over the weekend.
The highly pathogenic H5N8 avian influenza should be a major cause for concern, but it should not lead to a knee-jerk reaction that would see the welfare of millions of birds compromised.
Often in reaction to an outbreak like this the call goes out for birds to be farmed indoors, to avoid catching the disease spread by wild birds. This would see birds that enjoy all of the welfare benefits that free-range farming brings them, including the far greater potential for them to express their natural behaviours, condemned to a life indoors often in cages.
Let’s just think about this for a second – because that’s all it takes to realise this would be a bad idea – in both of these cases, the birds infected, and now being culled, were being kept indoors, they were not free range. It could even contribute to the likelihood bird flu would spread among a flock, as keeping them in closer confinement would lead to more stress, which would up the chances of them becoming infected as their immune system is lowered, and would allow the disease to jump between birds far more easily and risk mutating as it does so, giving the potential for a strain that is highly infective to humans.
Secondly, wild birds do often carry the low pathogen strain of bird flu but blaming them for spreading all of the more virulent strains of the disease is, again, unlikely. The bird flu strain that has been discovered in the Netherlands and in the UK is highly pathogenic. Wild birds can carry this strain too, but being highly pathogenic, it is likely to kill them before they can spread it.
So we should strongly resist any calls to bring free-range birds indoors to the close confinement of intensive farms.
We need to ensure we have a food system in place that protects our health and the health of the birds. Rearing birds in less stressful conditions, with lower stocking densities and ensuring the range is not attractive to wild birds can all help reduce the risk.
Having highly intensive farms in close proximity to one another will only increase the risk, regardless of whether the birds are inside. These latest cases have shown that free-range birds should not be the scapegoat for avian influenza and wild birds have always had this in their population – what has changed now is the ever increasing number of intensive farms.