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Last Updated: Monday, 5 February 2007, 18:48 GMT
Poultry owners 'left in dark'
By Dan Parkinson
BBC News, Suffolk

The bird flu outbreak has impacted on people who own just a few poultry, as well as larger commercial operations.

Some of these small-scale owners have been critical of government officials for a lack of information about the situation.

Poultry owner Jo Smith-Howell
Jo Smith-Howell is surprised at the lack of contact from Defra

Jo Smith-Howell's back garden is normally busy with the comings and goings of her family pets, a lively array of chickens and geese.

Now the garden lies empty after the outbreak of a deadly form of bird flu at a Bernard Matthews turkey farm just two fields away.

Like many people in rural Suffolk, Mrs Smith-Howell, 36, keeps poultry on her property as pets and to provide occasional eggs.

She and her husband Barry, 37, a firefighter, have built a makeshift pen and enclosed it in tarpaulin, which is where they now keep their birds.

They took action after hearing on the radio that a 3km (1.9 mile) protection zone had been placed around the affected turkey farm.

The farm, in which all poultry had to be isolated from wild birds, is visible in the distance from their back garden

'Big worry'

On Monday, Mrs Smith-Howell, who has three children aged 10, eight and four, criticised the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) for not contacting all local residents.

"We have had no visit from any Defra officials and no leaflet," she said.

Poultry owner Sally Tatum
Sally Tatum said there was a lack of information from official sources

"My husband in his role as a fireman has delivered leaflets explaining the situation to those who own large amounts of poultry.

"But there are lots of people who just have a few chickens like us. We don't know what to do or how long we should keep our chickens inside.

"It is a big worry because the farm is so close to us. If it was a wild bird it could easily have come into contact with our chickens and geese.

"My children usually feed the birds but I'm not allowing that now. We contacted Defra for advice and have only just had an e-mail back saying our concerns have been passed on.

"It's not good enough."

Panic slaughter

Defra have attempted to contact large poultry owners in the exclusion zone near the farm, in Holton, Suffolk.

But people who own less than 50 chickens do not have to register their animals and are not known about by officials.

In response to the criticism Defra said anyone with small numbers of poultry could register with them - online, by phone or by post - and they would receive the relevant information.

Our birds are just as likely to get the disease as others at the big farms
Sally Tatum

But other poultry owners living close to the outbreak of the H5N1 virus, which can be fatal if passed to humans, agreed Defra should have contacted every home in the area with advice.

Sally Tatum, 43, who lives at Laurel Farm, about 200 yards from the entrance to the turkey farm, has 12 chickens that usually roam free in her back yard.

She said there was a lack of official information and people she knew had even slaughtered their pet chickens after panicking when they heard about the outbreak.

'Other animals'

"I have locked my chickens in the shed since we found out about the outbreak on Saturday," she said.

"We are worried because the outbreak is so close and we do not really know what to do. We have questions about other animals spreading the virus, like our dogs and cats.

Poultry owner David Bedser
David Bedser turned to the Defra website to find out more

"If we had not gone out and didn't have a television, which some people don't, we wouldn't have known to keep our chickens in.

"No-one has been to see us and I think that is wrong. Everyone living close to the farm should have been contacted with advice by Defra.

"Our birds are just as likely to get the disease as others at the big farms."

Media visits

David Bedser, 51, keeps five geese as pets which usually roam free among the hay bales and pig pens on his sprawling farm.

He said he had only shut them away after being visited by members of the media.

"I'm surprised we've not been contacted. I found out information from the Defra website.

"But there must be lots of people round here with the odd bird, which are just as much at risk as others and could pass the virus on.

"The geese have been out all week and could already have the virus, you just don't know."

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