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While we’ve been (quite sensibly!) worrying about a pandemic that affects humans, it’s important we don’t take our eyes off an older potential pandemic disease… Avian Flu. While the current strain isn’t as disruptive or as deadly (to humans) as the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, it’s still killing wild and domestic birds, and it still has the potential to jump species to infect humans.
In fact, influenza strains have been the most common pandemic viruses over the last century. As a result, there are very strict government guidelines in place to protect chickens and other poultry from the virus. And the mainstay of that advice, for keepers of small flocks or pet chickens, is to keep them indoors.
The reasons are clear – Avian Flu (this year, we’re suffering from an H5N1 strain) is still present. New cases are being published all the time – and as a result, a national housing order came into force this week.
“Stay inside, protect the chickens, save lives”?
Basically yes! However, exactly how you do that is to a great extent up to you. There are two good options.
This is perhaps the ideal solution from the perspective of preventing the birds contracting avian flu. They move into the house with you! One of my colleagues has done this – and as you can see, her hens regularly join us on team meetings.
However, there are downsides. Chickens are notoriously difficult to housetrain, for one thing. And while clucking during online meetings is initially amusing, it soon loses its appeal. The final issue to consider is whether this is actually good for the birds. For high welfare, chickens need to be able to scratch in substrate. This isn’t usually possible inside a house. There are also potential disease risks to the humans in the household, as bird faeces carry a range of potentially pathogenic bacteria.
This is what I’ve done in previous years. The Avian Flu season is typically over winter (in the spring, many of the migratory birds that carry it leave), and the garden isn’t terribly busy at this time of year. So my laying hens have moved into the polytunnel.
They live together in their flock, sheltered from the elements and the disease alike. They have the soil to scratch in, and we feed them just as we would in their outdoor pen. They’re also safer from the hungry foxes as the temperature falls, and come the spring, I suspect that the polytunnel soil will be superbly enriched!
So what’s not to like?
Well, the big problem is – what if you don’t have a polytunnel? We’re lucky – we have a nice big space where they can be let out and still be protected.
A simple greenhouse might work, but often they’re too small and too concreted – you’d need to bring in soil for them. They can also overheat unless you’re really on the ball with ventilation.
A garden shed can also work, but remember the lighting for them, as well as a scratchable substrate
But if you haven’t got any of those, is there any alternative?
From a disease control perspective, the best bet is to cull them.
However, if your chickens are pets, that’s hardly an option! So the government does permit some limited exceptions to the “indoor only” rule.
The government guidance says that:
“If it is impossible for you to house your birds you must keep them separate from wild birds in a totally netted enclosure.”
This will prevent wild birds from getting in. However, they could still contaminate the feed – so feeders and drinkers, or any other sources of food and water, must be under cover. That might mean a tarpaulin over one end of the enclosure, or a board on bricks over the feeder, but there must be no chance that wild bird faeces can contaminate them.
Is there anything else you have to do?
Well, the advice is also to discourage wild birds from around the hens – wherever they are! For example, bird scarers or streamers could be used. And good biosecurity – cleaning your boots or shoes with a suitable disinfectant when you go into the chickens’ area from outside, in case you’ve picked up any contamination outside.
If you own more than 50 birds, area biosecurity with foot-baths containing government approved disinfectants need to be set up at all entrances and exits.
It’s also wise to make sure your pest and vermin control is up to date – as rats can carry the virus just long enough to infect your birds.
How would I know if the birds were ill?
Like in humans, the main signs are of respiratory disease. In chickens, this typically presents with a swollen head; a blue discolouration of the skin, especially around the comb; loss of appetite; difficulty or rattly breathing; and diarrhoea. Milder forms may cause milder symptoms, but any signs of respiratory problems should prompt you to call your vet for advice (ideally with photographs) in the first instance.
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