At least 500,000 birds have been culled in the UK due to an unprecedented outbreak of H1N5 virus, and more still are dying in the wild.
The UK is currently in “the worst bird flu outbreak we’ve seen”, according to British Poultry Council CEO Richard Griffiths.
Speaking to the BBC earlier this week, the government’s chief vet Christine Middlemiss said that the country was seeing a “phenomenal level” of the H1N5 virus.
She said, “We now have a total of 40 infected premises in the UK – that’s a really high number for the time of year for anything we’ve experienced before.” By comparison, there were 26 outbreaks last winter.
More than half a million affected birds have already been culled, with cases still increasing despite protection zones being put in place nationwide.
It’s said that the disease is spread by migratory wild birds from Europe, where high infections levels are also being recorded.
Dr Middlemiss said that almost 300 wild birds had been found with the disease at more than 80 locations.
Although the risk to human health is low, infected birds should not be touched.
The RSPB said: “Everyone should take care to maintain good hygiene when feeding garden birds, regularly cleaning feeders outside with mild disinfectant, removing old bird food, spacing out feeders as much as possible, and washing your hands.”
The impact on Britain’s birds
Of infected premises, Dr Middlemiss said: “All the birds on the premises have to be culled because of the ongoing risk of infection that they pose. The total number is something like half a million will now have been culled.”
However, she stresses that the outbreak is not expected to affect supplies of meat and eggs due to the overall large number of chickens processed in the UK.
According to DEFRA, more than 29 million laying hens and 116 million broilers exist in the UK at any one time
The types of premises among the infected range from the large commercial farms, to small flocks kept in gardens or yards and bird sanctuaries.
Peregrine falcons, curlews, barnacle geese and herring gulls are just some of the wild bird species that have been found fatally affected by the disease.
Asked if bird flu was still spreading, Middlemiss said: “We’re continuing to get the new detections. I confirmed another two last night and that’s the rate we’ve been going at for the last week or so.
“We’re seeing this as a huge pressure of infection from our wild birds.”
Dr Middlemiss said: “It used to be that we would have a reasonable-sized outbreak and then have two or three quiet years. But that’s not happening now.
“We’re seeing this across the whole of Europe. We need to understand better why we’re getting these ongoing infections every year.”
The root of the problem
Asked if the climate crisis was to blame for the increased infection, Dr Middlemiss said: “We don’t know specifically, but it’s certainly one of the thoughts that our experts are having.
“The birds migrate to the north of Russia over the summer and mix with other birds on other global flight pathways and exchange the viruses. So it’s quite plausible that with climate change and change in pathways that different mixing is going on.”
Speaking to Plant Based News, founder and director of vegan charity, Viva!, Juliet Gellatley, said, “The real problem is factory farming.
“Whilst wild birds undoubtedly contribute to the local spread of the virus in the wild, it is human commercial activities, particularly those associated with poultry, that are the major factors responsible for the global spread of bird flu.
“Whichever way you look at it, domesticated poultry are massively over-represented among the world’s bird population.”
Factory farms provide the ideal environment for diseases to spread and mutate. Read more about poultry farming in the UK.