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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 October 2005, 15:18 GMT 16:18 UK
The frontline fight against avian flu
By Hannah Goff
BBC News

The flat, watery wilds of the Isle of Sheppey do not look much like a battleground.

With the occasional grey heron gliding up into the clouds - conflict could not be further from this picture of tranquillity in north Kent.

But Elmley Marshes is one of 180 Royal Society for the Protection of Birds nature reserves in the frontline fight against avian flu.

Swans on a river channel at Elmley nature reserve
There are fears avian flu could arrive by next winter

It is down to the reserve's warden Barry O'Dowd to keep a bird of prey's eye out for signs of the disease in the birds that have made the 2,700 acres of the marshland which hugs the Swale estuary their home.

Thankfully, not only is Mr O'Dowd helped by an army of bird watching volunteers, he knows the reserve inch by inch.

"I know where the birds like to feed and where they nest - where they are likely to be. So it is easy to see if there is something amiss."

And as we drive around the water meadows, he seems to understand even the quietest of bird calls.

"You learn to tune in to the different noises," he says.

Mr O'Dowd and his residential volunteers, traverse the reserve's perimeter twice a week, looking for signs of sickness and death.

'Red list'

Even though he does not expect to find the disease in his adoptive flocks this winter, there is a chance it may arrive next year.

Experts believe that the infected flocks in the Mediterranean are likely to head south to East Africa for the winter, he says.

"The fear is if birds from Britain head to the same place they could mix and become infected."

Even though the risk of infection is small the proportionate threat of the disease to rare wading birds such as curlews and redshanks would be enormous.

Other birds on the red list of threatened species such as lapwings - numbers of which have declined by up to 75% in Britain over the last 20 years - could be wiped out.

"In one of the affected areas of north Russia it is thought that five to 10% of the world's population of bar-headed geese were wiped out," he says.

RSPB warden Barry O'Dowd
There are doubts that birds with avian flu can migrate long distances

Although officials have warned that avian flu will inevitably spread to Britain, a deadly flu epidemic among humans is by no means certain.

As Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt stressed in the Commons on Monday, avian flu is a disease of birds.

Far more at risk are the nation's poultry flocks.

The National Farmers Union says poultry farmers are on high alert having just recently had an outbreak of a less virulent strain of bird flu, Newcastle Disease.

The NFU's chief poultry adviser Maria Ball said farmers were concerned but with poultry farms generally fairly far apart any infection was not likely to spread in the way it has in South East Asia.

She said the NFU had been taking the issue very seriously for the last three and a half years.

This disease is evil. It kills absolutely without discrimination
Andrew Gunther

Although culling of infected flocks would be the obvious solution to any outbreak, Miss Ball says there are unlikely to be dead bird funeral pyres reminiscent of the foot-and-mouth outbreak.

"If we had a highly pathogenic avian influenza and the risk assessment said that neighbouring farms should be culled as a precaution I think we would support that."

She also suggested that free range and organic farmers might consider housing their birds inside to avoid contact with potentially infected wild flocks.

But this could severely impact on the meat and eggs' ethically farmed status, as EU standards demand such poultry is kept outside in daylight.

Andrew Gunther, an organic poultry farmer in North Devon, says he and farmers like him are "very exposed" to the risks of the virus.

Organic status

"There isn't an equivalent around. This disease is evil. It kills absolutely without discrimination and our defences against it haven't been tested.

"This disease is absolutely disastrous - if it gets into birds - mortality rates are 60 to 100% and the death is awful."

He supports the culling of infected birds for the sake of the animals.

But Mr Gunther, who represents organic certifiers the Soil Association in talks on the issue with the government, says any moves to force producers to put their birds indoors permanently would be counter-productive.

He says his birds' immune systems have been boosted by their healthy outdoor living.

Lapwing
The lapwing population has declined by 75% in the last 20 years

"I accept that special measures may be required in the short-term, but these should not be at the expense of the principles of good husbandry."

He also points out that if Soil Association licensed flocks were moved indoors, they would automatically lose their organic status.

Vice-chairman of the British Free Range Egg Producers Association John Widdowson also says there is no case for bringing free range birds inside.

'Disproportionate'

He points out that in Holland, where 30 million birds were culled following an avian flu outbreak two years ago, a ban on keeping birds in the open was overturned as "disproportionate to the risk."

"We are paid a premium for free range eggs and we can't survive without that premium. The costs are just too high."

Elmley sees up to 20,00 wigeon and 5,000 teal in winter

He said the threat of housing the birds "is as potentially as big a threat to us as avian influenza itself".

"We can't put the nation's health at risk but let's make sure the measures taken are proportionate."

If there is one thing that all sides of the debate agree on - the nation should not panic.

Mr Gunther says: "Millions of chickens have been slaughtered in China and in Asia where they drink duck's blood and only a handful of people have become infected.

"The reality is more people will die from smoking."


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