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Last Updated: Sunday, 19 February 2006, 16:28 GMT
Farmers tense as avian flu nears
Free range hens
Free range producers face the loss of their status
British poultry farmers are tense but confident in their preparations as bird flu approaches.

Contingency plans are already in place for the nightmare scenario that the disease is able to cross from wild birds in Europe to domestic poultry in the UK.

Farmers have been working their way to peak vigilance, knowing that the arrival of the disease will require quick action to stop economic disaster for the industry.

John Widdowson runs a free range egg farm near Tiverton in Devon with about 20,000 hens and says that his part of the poultry industry faces a particular threat.

"Obviously we are concerned. We have been concerned since late last summer when news of the disease started to break. It is clearly getting closer.

"We have probably done all we can do to prepare for it. The industry has been working very closely with Defra. They have the ability to deal with it. But it could have devastating consequences for producers affected by it."

Are consumers going to accept they are free range when they are shut up?
John Widdowson
Egg producer

Free range producers have higher production costs than their battery counterparts and rely on the higher price they get for eggs and meat.

The spectre of having to lock away their birds as a precautionary measure is a worrying one.

"We don't want it to happen but we are prepared to do it. That decision has to be take for the right reasons. There is a lot riding on it.

"To be called free range they legally have to have access to the outdoors. Under the egg marketing regulations they could be shut up under veterinary orders for up to 12 weeks and still retain free range status.

"But are consumers going to accept they are free range when they are shut up? If we are going to shut them up how is it going to change after 12 weeks - we are going to be living with this one for a few years.

"If they are shut up, we will need the support of consumers, otherwise we will not be there at the end of this.

"We get a premium for free range, take that away and we still have the higher production costs."

Minimal compensation

If the disease gets into poultry, the industry, a sector of farming noted for its profitability and efficiency, will suffer immediately.

Mr Widdowson, who is vice-chairman of the British Free Range Egg producers association, continued: "If it gets into poultry it will have affected poultry farmers massively. Birds will have to be slaughtered. There is very little compensation, and none for consequential loss.

"If I look at my own business I don't know whether I would get out the other side."

But there is confidence amongst many poultry farmers about the strength of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' response.

We have a biosecure unit, we don't just let anybody onto the unit
Mike Bailey
Turkey farmer

Mr Widdowson said the response would be different to the foot-and-mouth crisis five years ago.

"There is a big difference. Firstly, they weren't ready for that. Secondly, you have specialist dedicated farms, but they are spread out - I haven't got any neighbours with poultry.

"With 30% of the market in sales at 250m, it is massive and it is growing and it is being encouraged by government. Free range is the future. We don't want to see the free range sector wiped out over this."

Mike Bailey, who runs a turkey farm in Knutsford in Cheshire, said the normal precautions would be enough to face the threat.

Long consultation

"We have a biosecure unit, we don't just let anybody onto the unit. We take every precaution we can to prevent disease coming on.

"I am more worried than I was last year. It's moving across Europe.

"We've had a lot of advice, we've been in consultation with the government for probably three-and-a-half years.

"If it comes to the UK, we have heightened biosecurity, disease eradication, keeping foot dips in place, not letting people on your units."

Again he believes Defra and the industry will be able to tackle the threat.

"I am very confident. Last year there was a small outbreak of Newcastle's disease [a condition that cannot affect humans] in the UK which probably a lot of people didn't hear about.

"Defra were quickly onto that, it was mopped up very, very quickly so it didn't affect the poultry industry in the UK."


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