Photograph of a cockerel and hens on grass

Photograph of a cockerel and hens on grass

UK sees largest ever outbreak of avian flu: what’s the impact on Wales?

Published 13/12/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

The Welsh Government has introduced control measures to help tackle the “phenomenal level” of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in the UK.

Three cases have been confirmed in poultry in Wales. The Welsh Government has declared local ‘Control Zones’ on these premises to prevent the virus spreading.

It’s also announced changes to bird gathering rules, and introduced an avian influenza Prevention Zone across all of Wales, which requires bird keepers to follow biosecurity measures.

The latest Welsh Government updates on HPAI are available on its website..

What is avian influenza?

Sometimes referred to as ‘bird-flu’, this highly contagious viral disease affects the respiratory, digestive and/or nervous system of many species of birds. This season several cases of the HPAI strain H5N1 have been detected. This strain can spread rapidly and cause high mortality in poultry.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) highlights that H5N1 is "rarely" transmitted to humans. But there are concerns that it could create a “pandemic human flu strain” if it recombines with the seasonal human influenza virus.

Poultry can be infected with HPAI through contact with wild birds, such as migratory waterfowl (e.g. swans, geese and ducks) and gulls.

Where has avian flu been detected this season?

The HPAI H5N1 virus was first detected in rescued swans and captive poultry at a swan sanctuary in Worcester (England) on 15 October.

Since then, the virus has been found across the UK. The Welsh Government reported on 8 December that HPAI H5N1 has been confirmed at 36 premises in Great Britain, with over 276 findings in wild birds in 80 separate locations.

This is now the largest ever UK outbreak of avian influenza.

Professor Christine Middlemiss, the UK’s Chief Veterinary Officer, has said there’s a high level of infection in migratory wild birds returning from northern Russia and eastern Europe.

The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) report (updated weekly) shows the spread of the disease in wild birds across Great Britain. Total numbers of migrating wild water birds may not peak until January in the UK.

On 8 November the Welsh Government said there are “no immediate signs of the situation improving”.

The UK isn’t alone. There’s been a sustained increase in reports of HPAI in northern Europe over the past week. In southern Europe, further outbreaks of HPAI H5 and H5N1 continue to be reported. This UK Government report provides umbers of cases of the disease across Europe as of 29 November.

Are birds culled?

Yes, all poultry and captive birds kept at infected premises are culled. This happens as soon as possible and in a way that minimises the risk of the disease spreading.

Compensation is available for birds not diseased at the time of killing, under the

Animal Health Act 1981. Compensation isn’t payable for:

  • birds diseased at the time of killing;
  • eggs or poultry meat disposed of at the infected premises or following trace investigations from an infected premises; or
  • losses from business interruption cause by control measures.

What are Control Zones?

These are temporary targeted measures to control the spread of HPAI and are centred on the infected premises. Defra provides a UK-wide map of active Control Zones.

The extent of each zone, and the measures to be followed inside them, are announced by the Welsh Government following the detection of HPAI at an infected premises. Most recently, Control Zones were declared in Powys. The measures required include:

  • keeping a logbook of people entering the premises;
  • biosecurity measures on and off the premises; and
  • restrictions on moving eggs, poultry, and other captive birds or mammals within or outside the zone.

What is the all-Wales avian influenza Prevention Zone?

The Welsh Government announced the Prevention Zone on 3 November. This introduces a legal requirement for all bird keepers to adhere to strict biosecurity measures.

On 29 November, Prevention Zone measures were extended, to require all captive bird keepers to house their birds or keep them separated from wild birds.

The Chief Veterinary Officers for Wales, England and Scotland said:

Whether you keep just a few birds or thousands, you are now legally required to introduce higher biosecurity standards on your farm or small holding.

A complete list of measures all bird keepers must follow is available in Schedules 1 and 3 of the Zone Declaration. Keepers with 500+ poultry on a premises must follow “enhanced biosecurity measures”, these are set out in Schedule 2 of the Zone Declaration.

What’s happening with bird gatherings?

As of 8 November, gatherings (e.g. markets, shows, and exhibitions) of certain species of captive birds are banned, including:

  • galliforme birds (e.g. pheasants, chickens, and turkeys); and
  • anseriforme birds (e.g. ducks, geese, swans).

What to do when suspecting avian influenza in domestic or wild birds?

Any suspicious clinical signs of avian influenza in poultry or captive birds should be reported to 0300 303 8268.

Dead wild birds should be reported to the Defra helpline: 03459 33 55 77.

How significant is the poultry sector in Wales?

The poultry sector in Wales is relatively small – poultry and eggs make up about 6% of agricultural production. It’s characterised by a large number of birds being kept by a relatively small number of large producers.

Total poultry kept in Wales has increased in the last 50 years due to an increase in intensive poultry units for both meat and egg production.

The UK’s Chief Veterinary Officer says chicken and egg supply won't be affected by the spread the spread of HPAI. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has also said the outbreak poses a very low food safety risk.

Under the current housing restrictions, birds and eggs can still be marketed as "free-range" provided they meet all other requirements. Declaring a Prevention Zone means birds can be housed for up to 12 weeks for poultry meat and 16 weeks for egg production and still maintain free-range status.

Which laws have the Welsh Government used to introduce the controls?

The powers to declare these measures are contained in:

Further information

Article by Will Skinner and Katy Orford, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament

Senedd Research acknowledges the parliamentary fellowship provided to Will Skinner by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council which enabled this Research Article to be completed.