Christmas poultry cut down by worst UK bird flu outbreak

Christmas poultry cut down by worst UK bird flu outbreak

The UK has lost 40 per cent of its free-range turkey flock to bird flu and the resulting culling, leaving some high-end butchers without supplies and increasing pressure on the market during the key Christmas period. .

Poultry farmers are battling the worst outbreak of avian influenza in the nation’s history, which has proven deadly to birds traditionally eaten over the holiday season, especially free-range flocks. English poultry owners have been asked to keep flocks indoors since Monday to combat further spread.

“This strain is particularly virulent in turkeys, ducks and geese rather than chickens,” said Richard Griffiths, chief executive of the British Poultry Council, a trade group. “It’s getting the attention of the Christmas birds and it’s growing exponentially.”

The current outbreak, which began in October 2021 but has proven more severe this year than last winter, has already claimed two-fifths of the 1.2 million to 1.4 million free-range turkeys annually, Griffiths said. .

Gressingham, one of the biggest producers, said his entire flock of geese on three farms had been wiped out.

“Our duck and turkey farms have also been affected, resulting in reduced supply for all our customers,” said Gressingham, the UK’s largest duck producer.

Steve Childerhouse of Great Grove Poultry in Norfolk said bird flu last month wiped out his entire flock. Some 5,000 birds died in the two days between their discovery of the infection and the arrival of slaughter teams. The remaining 8,500 turkeys and geese were destroyed.

“Five or six weeks ago everything looked so good, the birds looked good, and then. . . He got the bird flu and blew it to shreds,” he said, adding that the infection meant he would likely seek work on a slaughter team as his farm was unusable for 12 months.

Some of the 90 butcher shops and farms it normally supplies to simply won’t offer Christmas birds this year, Childerhouse said.

Some 2.3 million birds, including chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys, have been culled in the current bird flu season, according to official data, up from 3.2 million in the entire 2021-22 season.

While that is only a small proportion of the 20 million birds produced weekly in the UK, it has been weighted towards Christmas poultry.

Griffiths said several medium-sized turkey farmers had decided to leave the industry permanently. Paul Kelly, an Essex-based turkey farmer who is a major supplier of young birds to other farms, said customers were refusing to commit for next year, leaving him unsure about how many eggs he should grow. “They’re saying, ‘We can’t take the risk,’” he said.

Ministers are allowing turkey farmers to freeze and then thaw the birds, selling them as fresh, a move that allows them to cull the birds earlier in an effort to overcome the virus. The UK produces around 11 million turkeys a year, two-thirds of which are for the Christmas period.

The government compensates farmers forced to euthanize birds, although the industry wants payments to be calculated from the start of an outbreak and include cash for sick and healthy birds that are euthanized.

James Mottershead, chairman of the National Farmers Union poultry board, said better compensation would help insurers re-enter the market, giving farmers the confidence to plan for 2023 and avoid shortages.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “Working closely with the agricultural and poultry sectors, we have announced a support package that includes faster compensation payments, relaxing poultry product marketing rules to help with the commercial planning, as well as lifting biosecurity measures.”

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