Poultry keepers in Northern Ireland will be able to let their birds out of housing from 17 March under updated avian influenza prevention measures, the agriculture department, DAERA, has announced.
The move means that free-range producers will be able to let their birds range again, provided they implement increased biosecurity measures, allowing them to continue to sell their products as free-range under EU law. The new measures will be in place until the end of April
The housing orders in place across the UK means there has been widespread concern about the loss of free-range status.
In England, producers have been allowed to let their birds out from 1 March, provided they are not in one of the ‘higher risk areas’ identified by Defra. However, some farmers have chosen to keep their birds housed for their own safety.
Eggs in supermarket now bear stickers informing consumers that hens may be housed rather than free-range due to AI prevention measures.
Commenting on Daera’s decision to further extend the Avian Influenza Prevention Zone until the end of April, Ulster Farmers’ Union poultry chairman Tom Forgrave said, “Given the serious risk posed by avian flu to the poultry industry, the Union fully supports DAERA’s decision to continue with the prevention zone until the end of April. Two cases of avian flu have already been confirmed in wild birds in Northern Ireland, which is why it is so important that bird keepers remain vigilant for signs of disease and continue to maintain strict biosecurity standards.”
Daera has confirmed that after 16 March, the requirements of the zone will be amended to some extent so long as additional biosecurity measures are followed. “The priority for bird keepers will be the safety of their flock, and they will continue to act responsibly in order to protect their birds. I would encourage producers to think carefully about the amended prevention zone restrictions and weigh up the possible risks of allowing birds outside even with additional biosecurity measures,” said the UFU poultry chairman.
This further extension does have implications for members with free-range enterprises. Under European Union rules, if birds have been housed for more than 12 weeks the labels on egg-packs need to reflect this. In GB industry have introduced a label for free-range egg cartons stating the contents were ‘laid by hens temporarily housed in barns for their welfare’ and the UFU says Northern Ireland should take similar action. “Birds in GB have been under a prevention zone order for longer than Northern Ireland so free-range producers are already facing this labelling issue and we believe similar action should be taken here. Research by the British Egg Industry Council shows that consumers are supportive of farmers putting birds’ health first. It is important to remember that these are temporary measures, in place to protect the health of the flock, and these birds are still free-range hens. I would encourage consumers and retailers to continue to support free-range poultry farmers during this challenging time, ensuring that once the risk of bird flu has passed Northern Ireland producers are in a position to supply the free-range market,” said Forgrave.