How the industry is beating poultry pests, one rat at a time

By David Burrows

There’s a rat amongst the chickens, what are you going to do? Traditionally, the solution would have been to drop traps around the sheds filled with rodenticide baits. In fact, many farms will routinely do this whether there were pests about or not. But things have changed.

“It’s not illegal to use permanent baiting but the government has asked us to help people use it more responsibly,” explains Alan Buckle, chairman at the UK Campaign for Responsible Rodenticide Use (CRRU). “We’re moving to a more sophisticated, sustainable approach,” he adds.

From April, anyone wanting to buy and use anticoagulants has had to provide ‘proof of competence’, with the labels having also changed to highlight the new regime. Poultry producers have therefore had to take a professional qualification, employ a professional pest control contractor or buy ‘amateur products’ (that is, much smaller bags which can be prohibitively expensive). Membership of certain assurance schemes is also proof of competence (see Licence to kill, below).

The changes can be traced back to the EU Biocides Regulation 2012, and the history merits a brief recap.

Europe’s review of biocides highlighted the risks associated with first- and second-generation anticoagulant rodenticides (FGARs and SGARs). Residues of these poisons were being regularly found in non-target species, and in a period of just a few years the research began to snowball.

Papers were published following examinations of stoats, badgers, kestrels and other non-target species, many of which don’t feed on the animals the chemicals are meant for. Wherever scientists looked, they found residues of SAGRs in UK wildlife.

“Forty-five percent of barn owls were showing some signs of SGARs and 80% of red kites,” says David Cross, head of the technical training academy at Rentokil UK. “It won’t kill them but we don’t know what impact it is having on them.”

Touch and go

Policymakers therefore took a precautionary approach through the biocide regulations. Some member states have banned the use of anticoagulants given how spectacularly the SGARs, in particular, failed the various human and environmental safety tests.

However, Brussels designed the rules with more flexibility for those who wanted it.

The UK, through the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), is one of those to have taken a more pragmatic approach, as some have put. “We had to fight to hang on to SGARs,” says Cross, and it was touch and go for a while given the lack of viable alternatives.

However, the chemicals industry, coordinated by CRRU, has funded and established a new self-regulated stewardship regime (which shouldn’t be affected by Brexit). Buckle says the scheme is certainly not “wish-washy. It’s very closely monitored and we have to improve things.”

CRRU has to meet a number of criteria but the most high profile is undoubtedly the one involving barn owls. The government has demanded a “significant decrease in the exposure of the sentinel species [barn owl]in terms of sum residues of SGARs detected in livers of barn owl carcasses collected over the first five years”.

So, how are things going? 

CRRU is being assessed based on three areas: whether it’s done what it promised to do; has it affected the way these products are used; and has wildlife exposure changed. HSE is content that the first goal has been achieved, but for the other two it’s a bit early to say. 

CRRU, as part of its regular biannual reports to HSE, has to monitor behavioural change under the new regime. There has been some tension, especially amongst those who strive for a rodent-free environment. Buckle says he had plenty of calls from farmers who had driven 25 miles to pick up a rodenticide and were turned away because they didn’t have the proof of competence, but “we seem to have got over that. Farming representatives are full on board with this,” he adds. 

Some of the experts Poultry Business approached said that awareness levels are pretty good. Kevin Higgins, who has been touring some of the major agricultural shows with the British Pest Control Association (BPCA), has been “pleasantly surprised” that farmers know about the changes. “Some have already taken courses,” he adds.

Licence to kill

Others will be relying on their membership to certification schemes to continue using rodenticides. Initially, this was only going to be an interim measure to provide enough time to train thousands of producers; but CRRU has been working with a number of farm assurance schemes to bring their standards into line with the CRRU UK code of best practice.

Red Tractor and Laid in Britain are both expected to be compliant come 31 December 2017, meaning that membership will provide that all-important proof of competence. The British Egg Industry Council had been lagging a little, but the chairman Andrew Joret confirmed to Poultry Business that “the latest best practice for responsible rodenticide [use]has been incorporated into the British Lion Code of Practice, and we are also due to offer courses as part of the Lion training passport”. CRRU are yet to see the updated standards, however.

If BEIC et al are all on board come 1 January 2018 it only leaves two years until the government reviews whether it’s all been a success or a failure. If it’s the latter, then there’s every chance of regulation. “That’s what is hanging over us,” says BPCA’s Higgins. “We may not have these weapons at all, so everyone needs to take this seriously and give time to it.”

Given that rats alone cause the UK farming industry somewhere between £14 million and £28 million a year, producers have long taken pest control seriously – especially those with poultry units. The conditions are perfect for rodents to breed: warmth, water and food are all in good supply.

What the new regime has done is put the emphasis on prevention rather than reaction. This means taking a number of (often simple) steps to keep rodents like brown rats and mice out. “You need to make the farm inhospitable to rodents,” says Cross at Rentokil. Filling in gaps, securing air vents, clearing vegetation so there’s no cover are all good practice.

The mantra the industry tends to use is: exclude, restrict, destroy and monitor. And though pest prevention can be common sense, the likes of the BPCA will always argue that effective pest control requires expertise.

An environmental survey, for example, will highlight whether there are any potential issues or current infestations. Determining the species that’s at the heart of the problem can be tricky too, Higgins says. “Producers often think it’s mice or rats they have a problem with, but often it’s not.” (Bat droppings can look remarkably similar to those from rats, for example).

Experts will also understand the behaviour of pests. Brown rats tend to be neophobic, for instance, so will always give a new bait trap a wide berth. “It’s not the poison that’s useless, it’s just that they won’t touch it,” says Rentokil’s Cross (though resistance is another concern).

Rentokil is one of the companies using technology to ensure that it’s target species that receives the deadly dinner. In June they unveiled ‘AutoGate’, a bait box that uses infrared sensors so the trap only opens for rats. This allows “far quicker” detection, monitoring and control, says the firm’s area technical manager Colm Moore. 

For any business involved in food, pests can wreak havoc. One in two farm fires are down to rats gnawing wires, for example, and everyone is on high alert currently thanks to avian flu. But bad publicity is a “big cost” that’s often forgotten, says Higgins at BPCA. “You can lose your reputation overnight.”

Indeed, processors and supermarkets are striving for ‘squeaky clean’ suppliers, whilst government agencies are not afraid to throw big fines at companies that haven’t applied due diligence when it comes to pest control. There’s a feeling that the new rules won’t make it harder to keep pests in check; rather, they will inspire innovation and force the sector to take a new, proactive, protective and preventative approach. “If everyone gets behind this, residues will fall,” Higgins says.

WHAT ARE POULTRY PESTS?  

Pests are any unwanted organism. It may be unwanted because it spreads disease, reduces productivity of the birds, wastes feed, destroys the building, or is a nuisance to neighbours. The major pests associated with poultry facilities are beetles, flies, lice, mites, wild birds and rodents.  

Common insect pests. 

Fowl mites including northern fowl mite, red mites, scaly leg mite and depluming mite. The chicken lice include chicken body louse, chicken head louse, chicken feather louse and turkey lice. 

Common habitat pests found in litter and manure.

Darkling beetles, fleas, and flies.  There are many types of flies to be controlled, including house flies, soldier flies, black flies, fruit flies, blow flies, flesh flies and small dung flies.

Bird pests

There are many species of wild birds that become pests. Some of the common bird pests are sparrows, finches, barn swallows, waterfowl, pigeons, seagulls and crows.  

Rodent pests.  These include rats and mice. Three common species are the Norway rat, roof rat, and the house mouse.

Did you know?

 

  • Rats cost UK farming £14m to £28m a year
  • 50% of farm fires are down to rats gnawing wires
  • Rats average 40-50 dropping a day, but they can easily be confused with bat droppings
  • Vitamin K can be an antidote to some rodenticides
  • An undetected population of rats can swell from two to 1,250 in 12 months

 

 

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