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By Katie Thear

Although there has not been a serious outbreak in the 8 years since this was written, it could happen and this advice would be as valid today.

What is Avian Flu?

Avian influenza is a type A influenza virus that is highly contagious to domestic and wild birds and has been known for over 100 years. It can appear in a severe or highly pathogenic form (HPA1) or in a less severe form (LPA1) but there are around 20 different strains. The strain that first appeared in Asia, resulting in the slaughter of millions of birds, is called H5N1. According to the World Health Organisation, although this virus is highly infectious from bird-to-bird, it is only slightly infectious from bird-to-human and no proven cases of human-to-human transmission have so far been detected. The worry is that it could mutate to a human to human form.

In April, H7N3 - Low Pathogenic Avian Influenza was confirmed at two poultry farms in Norfolk. The Veterinary Laboratories Agency carried out further investigation and confirmed on 4 May 2006, that this virus is a low pathogenic strain, so the presence of the high pathogenicity strain in the flock has been ruled out. The two free range flocks were slaughtered on suspicion of an avian notifiable disease. A restricted zone has been put in place extending 1km from each of the infected premises. H7 does not transmit easily from human to human. In almost all cases of human H7 infection to date, the virus, in both low and high pathogenic forms, has only caused a mild disease. Therefore at this stage this is a virus which only has extremely limited implications for human health.

General precautions for Avian Flu

  • Don't buy poultry from a source that has an unknown health status.
  • Isolate new stock from the rest of the flock until their health is assured.
  • Keep poultry and waterfowl separate. Keep them apart from pets and other animals.
  • Clean and disinfect the house regularly.
  • Clean and disinfect any containers or vehicles where poultry have been transported.
  • Use wood shavings or sawdust specifically sold for poultry or pet use. Replace regularly, as necessary.
  • Dispose of droppings and litter by putting them in a compost heap. Add lime and then a layer of soil on top. Cover the heap so that wild birds and poultry do not have access.
  • Clean feeders and drinkers regularly.
  • Provide clean, fresh food and water inside where wild birds cannot gain access.
  • Buy poultry feeds that come from a recognised mill or supplier who will be operating to the relevant Codes of Practice.
  • Avoid giving leftover scraps of food (which is illegal anyway).
  • Don"t let poultry have access to ground where there are puddles of water.
  • Store poultry feeds where rodents cannot gain access.
  • Clear up areas of spilt food.
  • Take every action to get rid of rodents if they are around. (Call the local Environmental Health Office to obtain the services of a Pest Control Officer).
  • Make sure your clothes, footwear and hands are clean before and after handling poultry and their housing.
  • Look out for signs of ill-health (respiratory distress, lack of movement, etc) and contact the vet immediately if you suspect disease.

Housing poultry to protect from avian flu

If an emergency situation arises, it may become necessary to house poultry until the risk of infection has passed.

DEFRA has announced that if poultry flocks need to be housed in the event of bird 'flu restrictions, an organic flock can be housed for up to 12 weeks without losing its organic status.

Small moveable houses:

Small houses may include a built-in run or have one placed next to it. They're designed for moving regularly to new areas of grass but how can you be sure that wild birds haven't already used the grass? There's no guarantee of this, of course, although keeping the feeder inside the house and not providing grain outside is less of an incentive for wild birds to come.

Any muddy areas of grass, especially where water has collected in pools, are to be avoided because they're potential reservoirs of disease. If there's no clean, mud-free area it's much better to place the house and run on concrete or flagstones for the period in which poultry need to be confined.

Flagstones can be put down as a temporary base, leaving small drainage cracks between them. Make sure the cracks are narrow enough to exclude rodents! A house with attached covered run can then be placed on the flagstoned area. If there's no attached run, make a temporary one that can be placed next to the house pop-hole. You can buy separate runs from poultry housing suppliers. An open run should be covered with fine horticultural netting (no more than 25mm gauge) so that wild birds can't get in. Part of the run can be roofed or covered with a waterproof material so that a dry scratching area of fine sand or wood shavings is available.

A garden shed:

In all probability, a garden shed will already be on hard standing. It's easy to put some flagstones in front of the door to make an outside run for the poultry. Remember to put some fine-gauged wire netting around the base of the shed so that rats don't find a refuge underneath. A run as referred to above can then be placed in front of the door, although it means having to enter the run to open and close the shed door. An alternative is to make a pop­hole at the other end or at the side of the shed. The run should be covered as detailed earlier. A layer of thick plastic with wood shavings or sawdust will protect the shed floor and provide the poultry with a scratching area. The window can be left partially open but covered with metal mesh so there's ventilation.

Feather-legged Pekins and Booted bantams will tend to sleep on the ground rather than perch, but other breeds will require a perch. Sometimes they're quite happy to sleep on an existing shelf, but the ideal is a perch that is 4 - ­5cm wide and placed about 60cm from the ground. Really big and heavy birds may require perches at 30cm from the ground. If more than one perch is required they can be stepped, as long as there's a horizontal distance of 40cm and a vertical distance of 40cm between them. The perches should be below the level of the window so that the birds aren't in a draught.

Layers will need nest boxes which can be boxes placed on their sides with wood shavings or sawdust as liners. Alternatively, freestanding or rollaway nest boxes can be bought from specialist suppliers. It's normally fairly easy to fit a lighting system in a garden shed, for extra light for winter eggs. There are mains electricity and 12-volt systems with automatic controls available.

Barns and outbuildings:

Barns and farm outbuildings are also easily adapted for poultry, including chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys and guinea fowl. Again they need good ventilation and a well-covered floor. Windows should be open and covered with wire mesh. Open-sided barns will need to have wire mesh walls provided, with straw bales acting as wind breaks placed against them. Leave the top area as wire mesh only for ventilation.

Straw bales stacked at various heights also provide acceptable perching areas for chickens, turkeys and guinea fowl. If the latter have been used to perching in trees, provide them with a few solid branches placed in such as a way as to be secure and stable.

Feeders and drinkers are best placed above slats to avoid damp areas. Any damp litter should be removed and replaced. Raking the floor litter on a regular basis is also recommended as it introduces air and avoids matting. It goes without saying that all feeders and drinkers should also be cleaned regularly.

As mentioned earlier, freestanding or rollaway nestboxes are available from specialist poultry equipment suppliers.

If an outdoor scratching area is also to be provided, it's a good idea to erect some kind of verandah over the exit of the building and to put up netting over the ranging area. This will obviously be a more restricted area than the birds are used to - it's not a practicable proposition to cover a large expanse.

Polytunnels:

An ordinary clear polytunnel is suitable as a winter house for hardy waterfowl because they are well endowed with down feathers under their waterproof outer plumage. It doesn't need to be insulated but should be very well ventilated. If necessary, mesh ventilation panels can be inserted in the walls. Small polytunnels usually have enough fresh air by having a door at each end. An open-air run covered with netting can be erected outside at one end, to allow the waterfowl outside access without allowing wild birds to come in.

Waterfowl need access to splashing water and a way to provide this without ending up with a quagmire is to have a raised slatted area at one end of the house. A shallow rigid plastic pond, such as the one sold by the Domestic Fowl Trust, can then be placed on the slats. There is an inflow connection that can be connected to a hosepipe coming in from one side, and an outflow that can be directed out to the other side, to a ditch or other draining area that the waterfowl (or wild birds) can't get to. A regular through-flow ensures that clean water is available to the ducks and geese on a regular basis. Clear polytunnels aren't suitable for any poultry in summer because they become too hot in glaring sunshine!

Geese are of course, grass eaters, but grass or Lucerne pellets are available as a temporary substitute for their normal grass ranging. They will also eat grain. I should stress that all poultry should have access to insoluble poultry grit for the proper digestion of grains.

Aviaries:

An aviary is a ready-made sanctuary for birds that need to be confined for a time, for the roof is already in position. The drawback is that it's generally designed for flying birds so it has more vertical space than floor space. However, a small number of ground poultry can be housed for a time. Guinea fowl will be in their element with high branches to explore, and peafowl too will have sufficient room to perch. Both these species can also be housed in any barn, shed or outbuilding, as long as there is sufficient height. If the aviary mesh is a fairly wide gauge it might be necessary to cover it with finer gauge to exclude smaller birds like sparrows.

Stocking density:

Remember that while birds are confined, an appropriate amount of floor space should be provided for them. While they're outside in covered runs it may not be possible to provide the space that they need there to meet free-­range or organic requirements. In fact, those with very large flocks wouldn't have a hope of doing so but birds can be housed for up to 12 weeks without losing their free-range and organic status.

Stocking density in a house

  • Laying chickens 6 per 1 square metre
  • Table chickens 10 per 1 square metre
  • Ducks 10 per 1 square metre
  • Geese 2 per 1 square metre.
  • Turkeys 2 per 1 square metre
  • Guinea fowl 10 per 1 square metre

Droppings:

While poultry are kept inside, the amount of droppings will be far greater than where there is unrestricted access to the outside. They will tend to be under the perches, so having a droppings board or slatted area underneath will help keep the area clean. I've already mentioned the importance of raking and replacing damp areas of litter. Used litter and droppings should be removed regularly but stored safely. The best method is to place them in a secure compost heap well away from the poultry. After adding droppings to the compost heap, sprinkle on some lime with a layer of soil on top. Finally, cover the heap so that no wild birds have access.

So, with some preparation and planning, poultry can be safely inside away from the the threat of avian influenza.

Further information

For ongoing information on avian flu: Defra helpline: 01224 711 072. www.defra.gov.uk

If you need to report dead birds, or need advice on avian flu, please contact the Defra Helpline (08459 33 55 77) .(Open from 8:00am to 6:00pm).

World Health Organisation: www.who.int

Copyright © Katie Thear 2006


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