UK bird flu outbreak to cause short supply of turkeys at Christmas

Springwatch: Birds are dying from avian flu across Scotland in June

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Shoppers may have to compromise on their turkey selection this year, with free range birds likely to be harder to come by in the wake of the ongoing H5N1 avian flu outbreak, say experts. The warning comes after a mandatory housing measure for all captive and poultry birds was announced by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs on Monday. The measures have been driven by what the authorities are calling the UK’s worst-ever outbreak of the virus, with more than 200 cases confirmed since October last year and millions of birds culled as a result.

British Poultry Council Chief Executive Richard Griffiths told that the latest outbreak has had a disproportionate impact on one part of the turkey industry.

He said: “Our free range turkey sector, producing over one million of the total eight and a half million Christmas turkeys, has taken the biggest hit with around 30–35 percent directly affected by bird flu.”

This number includes both birds that have fallen sick with the virus, and those exposed to them, which have been culled as a result in order to minimise the spread.

Mr Griffiths continued: “Those who buy free range may see fewer turkeys available as a result, but farmers are working hard to mitigate the impacts of what has been an extraordinarily tough year for UK poultry production.”

Free range birds tend to grow more slowly that their counterparts, imbuing them with more flavour, a firmer texture, more fat in their muscles and less of a tendency to dry out when cooked.

Mr Griffiths concluded: “We continue to work with the Government on measures that support producers to protect their healthy birds from this awful disease, and to try to produce a turkey for everyone that wants one this Christmas.”

Earlier this week, the UK’s Chief Veterinary Office, Christine Middlemiss, said: “We are now facing this year the largest-ever outbreak of bird flu and are seeing rapid escalation in the number of cases on commercial farms and in backyard birds across England.

“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.

“Scrupulous biosecurity and separating flocks in all ways from wild birds remain the best form of defence. Whether you keep just a few birds, or thousands, from Monday November 7 onwards you must keep yours indoors.

“This decision has not been taken lightly, but is the best way to protect your birds from this highly infectious disease.”

In a statement to the House of Commons on Tuesday, Minister of State for Food Mark Spencer said: “We recognise that the industry is under serious pressure.

“October has seen a massive escalation in the number of cases confirmed, with 91 cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza in poultry and captive birds.”

Of these, he noted, 82 cases were in England, four each in Scotland and Wales, and one single case in Northern Ireland.

This is a sizable increase in incidence rate compared to the 158 cases seen in total for the whole period spanning October 2021–September 22.

However, Mr Spencer added: “The UK Health Security Agency has said that the risk to public health from H5N1 remains very low — and the Food Standards Agency has said there is no food safety risk for UK consumers.”

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This week alone has seen a number of fresh outbreaks of avian flu reported across the UK.

On Monday, the presence of highly pathogenic avian influenza was confirmed in captive birds held at a premises in March, Cambridgeshire. In response a 2-mile monitoring zone has been established around the site.

This was followed on Tuesday by an outbreak at commercial poultry premises near Much Hoole in Lancashire, North Thoresby in Lincolnshire and a fifth site near Thirsk, North Yorkshire.

And yesterday the virus was detected in commercial poultry near Boston, Lincolnshire, a third premises near Taverham, Norfolk, and a tenth premises near Dereham, also in Norfolk. The authorities have reported that a 2-mile protection zone and a 6-mile surveillance zone has been established around each of these premises.

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