by Deborah Hadfield
The UK is facing its largest ever outbreak of avian influenza. DEFRA confirms more than 170 cases in less than 12 months among captive birds.
The latest outbreak in Norfolk, Suffolk and parts of Essex has seen the disease at 16 poultry premises.
It’s a notifiable animal disease, which means you report suspected cases to your local government wildlife agency.
For poultry, DEFRA has imposed a mandatory regional housing order.
Pheasants are among larger, wild birds hit by the disease, alongside corvids and seabirds. What does this mean for shooting?
Tim Weston of the National Gamekeepers Organisation says shoots have been inquiring about bird flu to the NGO in most regions. He says: “I don’t think we’ve ever been so busy taking calls and giving advice on what to do. There’s a massive desire out there from the gamekeeping sector and shoot owners to get biosecurity in place to protect themselves.”
Tim says the message needs to get to shooters, too, that they they should take part. He says that everyone needs to be prepared to have clean boots and turn up clean. He says: “If you’ve got mud on the boots, most disinfectants will struggle to kill the virus. But if the boots are clean, the disinfectants can kill the virus fairly quickly and fairly efficiently.”
He says: “If you turn up on a shoot day with your shiny Range Rover, that’s great. If you turn up to shoot with your muddy Range Rover and you’re asked to clean the wheel arches and it’s going to be sprayed with disinfectant, we hope you’re going to accept that.”
Vet Mark Elliot, of the South Downs Veterinary Consultancy, says that for the the game rearing, game releasing and game keeping sector, the impact of outbreak on rural communities is almost the equivalent of foot & mouth.
He says: ”It’s important that we take all the steps that we can to stop the stop the spread. It’s not as bad yet as something like the foot & mouth outbreak was. If we can all do our bit, we can stop it from reaching that sort of level of concern.”
Not everyone in the world of shooting is so gloomy. Ollie Williams runs the Cornish Sporting Agency which lets shooting across the West Country.
He says: ”We thought we had bird flu but the vet tested, and it was hexameter which, as most gamekeepers and shoot owners know, is a common disease. We had a quite badly this year. We seemed to get it later on than we have had in the past.”
He says he couldn’t get medication into the birds through the water systems as he normally would. He says: “It was it was more difficult to target those birds. So, as a result, we’ve had to pull back on a couple of shoot days.
“Although avian flu is serious and is a is a destructive disease in the in the avian world it’s not the only one. There are other ones. So biosecurity is always important.”
The hardest hit sector in the bird industry is commercial poultry. Nine Avian Influenza Protection Zones and 10 surveillance zones are in place across England and Wales. The National Gamekeepers Organisation says this has no effect on shooting except to restrict exports of gamebird meat from game dealers inside the AIPZs.
It’s not just pheasant shooters who have to take bird flu seriously. Tim says that, currently, there is no regulation or no restriction on the shooting of wild birds. He says crop protection and deer management still needs to go ahead.
He urges all shooters, including deer stalkers, to harness biosecurity measures. He says: “If you’re going pigeon shooting, don’t turn up from being on another estate with mud around your wheel arches and drive on to a different estate.”
He says it’s important to make sure before you go that your vehicle is clean. He says: “That includes your equipment, your hypos, your decoys, etc. Really simple stuff that doesn’t take long. And the same goes for deer stalkers. Clean boots, clean cars. Don’t bring your dog.”
While the National Gamekeepers Organisation want guns banned from bringing gundogs while bird flu is rife, others take a more even view of dogs.
Vet Mark Elliot says that if people do take their dogs shooting, it’s essential they are clean too.
He says: “We don’t dunk dogs in disinfectant, but dogs have been flagged as a potential risk due to dirt. DEFRA has specifically flagged them in the risk assessment that they produced at the end of August. I think that risk is incredibly low, but it’s not zero.”
He says that if you have been travelling with your dog to areas where there’s infected bird flu, don’t go to your local shoot for two or three days if possible.
He says: ”People who are working locally, thinking locally, staying locally are absolutely fine. If you’re traveling up and down the country, think about whether you need to take your dog with you if you’re going to go shooting somewhere else the next day.”
After two years of covid and a shortage of birds, bird flu is a tough challenge for gamekeepers and farmers.
Dominic Boulton, of Aim to Sustain, who also advises the Game Farmers Association, says that game farmers are faced with a very difficult choice as to how are they going to secure their supply lines for next year’s production.
He says: “That’s the big difficulty facing game farmers at the moment, whichever way they turn. The route is fraught with risk. If you overwinter birds, you’ve got to keep them safe and protected from bird flu all through the winter, which is no easy task and requires a lot of infrastructure and some degree of luck.”
He says that if gasmekeepers choose to catch up birds, that is a risky thing to doin the middle of an outbreak of bird flu.
He says: “We also don’t know yet whether or not there may be restrictions placed on catching up, depending on how bad this outbreak gets. We may see further restrictions on what we’ve seen in the past.”
Dominic says the big question is where next year’s chicks and eggs are going to come from. He says: “Do we rely on French imports that caused the huge problems this year? So that’s a very difficult question. And each game farmer is going to have to look at his own situation and decide which is the least risky option for his situation.”
The main vector for bird flu – the main way the disease spreads in the UK – is from migrating birds.
BASC says that impact of bird flu on wildfowling has been limited. But things are expected to get worse as the colder weather brings the return of migrating wildfowl.
Mark says: “We have a situation where birds migrate very long distances and can potentially carry the virus.
“Even as far as sort of Asia through the flyways and byways of Siberia in the north, drop into the UK and deposit the virus on arrival.”
He says there’s a limit to what we can actually physically do about that. He says: “All we can hope for is that effectively immunity will evolve in a domestic species to the current strain. But of course, that’s until the next strain.”
Ollie says the current situation is a lottery for shoots.
He says, “If you win this lottery you just have a normal year. If you lose it’s a lot of money.
“For many people – for shooters – it’s a long winter without any shooting, which is, as far as I’m concerned is more distressing.”
BASC says shooters should keep up to date with the Defra website and if shoot days are cancelled people should keep in touch with shoot organisers so that any disruption is minimised.
Tim says there’s another challenge that’s being faced by some gamekeepers. He says: “After two years of COVID we’ve now got the largest bird flu outbreak, anyone any of us have ever seen. And there is help out there. And sometimes you just need to talk to somebody. Sometimes you need a bit more help. “
He says if you’re struggling with anything, with any form of depression or mental illness the Gamekeepers Welfare Trust can help.
The Defra helpline is 03459 335577. Further advice in England & Wales is here. For Scotland its here. For Northern Ireland it’s here.