Christmas fowl felled by the UK’s worst outbreak of bird flu

The UK has lost 40 per cent of its free-range turkey herd to bird flu and the resulting culling, leaving some high-end butchers without supplies and putting pressure on the market during the crucial Christmas period.

Poultry farmers are battling the country’s worst-ever outbreak of bird flu, which has proved deadly to birds traditionally eaten during the festive season, particularly free-range flocks. English poultry farmers have had to keep flocks indoors since Monday to combat further spread.

“This strain is particularly virulent in turkeys, ducks and geese and not chickens,” said Richard Griffiths, chief executive of the British Poultry Council, a trade group. “It’s hitting the Christmas birds and it’s growing exponentially.”

The current outbreak – which began in October 2021 but has proved more severe so far this year than last winter – has already claimed two-fifths of the 1.2 to 1.4 million outdoor turkeys annually, Griffiths said.

Gressingham, one of the largest producers, said its entire flock of geese on three farms had been wiped out.

“Our duck and turkey farms have also been impacted, resulting in a reduced supply to all of our customers,” said Gressingham, the UK’s largest duck producer.

Steve Childerhouse of Great Grove Poultry in Norfolk said bird flu destroyed his entire flock last month. About 5,000 birds died in the two days between his discovery of the infection and the arrival of the culling teams. The remaining 8,500 turkeys and geese were destroyed.

“Five or six weeks ago everything was looking so good, the birds were looking good, and then . . . Avian flu came and ripped everything to pieces,” he said, adding that the infection meant he was likely to seek work on a cull team as his farm could not be used for 12 months.

Some of the 90 butchers and farm shops he normally supplies just won’t be offering Christmas birds this year, Childerhouse said.

About 2.3 million birds – including chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys – have been killed in the current avian flu season, according to official figures, up from 3.2 million in the entire 2021-22 season.

Although this is only a small part of the 20 million birds produced weekly in the UK, it has been weighted towards Christmas fowl.

Griffiths said several medium-sized turkey farmers have decided to exit the industry permanently. Paul Kelly, an Essex-based turkey farmer who is a key supplier of young birds to other farms, said customers are refusing to commit for next year, leaving him unsure of how many eggs to cultivate. “They say, ‘We can’t take the risk,'” he said.

Ministers are allowing turkey producers to freeze and then thaw birds and sell them as fresh – a measure that allows them to slaughter birds earlier to escape the virus. The UK produces around 11 million turkeys a year, two-thirds of that for the Christmas period.

The government compensates farmers who are forced to kill birds, although the industry wants payments to be calculated from the start of an outbreak and include cash for sick birds as well as healthy birds that are killed.

James Mottershead, chairman of the National Farmers’ Union Poultry Committee, said better compensation would help insurers get back into the market and give farmers the confidence to plan for 2023 and avoid shortages.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “Working closely with the farming and poultry sectors, we have announced a support package that includes faster compensation payments, relaxed marketing rules for poultry products to support business planning, and steps to introduce biosecurity measures.” Christmas fowl felled by the UK’s worst outbreak of bird flu

Adam Bradshaw

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