Kevin and Val Russell run Hawkstone Falconry in Yorkshire. With the bird flu outbreak following two years of covid, businesses such as theirs are struggling.
For Val, the issue is made worse as her work was a lifeline after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Working with the birds boosted her mental health.
Val says the birds are her life. She says: “It’s something I do every day. It got me over breast cancer. It was a reason to stay alive.”
She says it gave her focus and helped her focus after a mastectomy. She says: “A lot of people are not able to actually lift their arms up after they’ve had it done. So, my goal was that I would be able to raise my arm over my head so that I could actually put my hand up to feed the birds.”
Kevin says it means the world to him that the birds keep Val happy.
He worked throughout COVID restoring cars as they lost all the income from the birds. He says: “Coming home knowing on the that Val was kept going is enough for me.”
The government has introduced an Avian influenza Prevention Zone (AIPZ) across the UK making it a legal requirement for all captive bird keepers to follow strict biosecurity measures.
Kevin says bird flu is a disaster for them. He says: “It’s not good at all. We can’t get out. We can’t do anything with the birds and the hunting’s down completely. We just don’t want to put them at risk.“
Welfare organisations are concerned that people working with birds will suffer from mental health problems as the epidemic takes hold acorss the UK, as it is expected to do. One fear that gamekeepers have is if they admit they have mental health issues to their GP, they risk the police taking their guns.
John Clarke of the National Gamekeepers Organisation says mental health is the most important priority. He says, “You’ve got to be responsible. If you’ve got to the stage where you need help, you’ve got to get help.”
He says there is no need to be ashamed of needing help. He says, “If you’re struggling, lodge your guns with a friend, put them in their cabinet, ask them to look after them until you can get yourself through it.”
John says that by doing that, you’ve shown that you are being sensible and have acknowledged you’ve got a problem. He believes that will help shooters get their guns back once they are well again.
The government is not culling wild birds to stop the spread of the disease. However, according to Dominic Boulton of Aim to Sustain, the shooting world feels threatened by the bird flu situation.
He says: ”Commercial shoots have a lot more at stake. They generally have much higher stocking densities. Smaller farm shoots may feel less threatened, but everybody, to a degree, is feeling as if bird flu is probably the biggest threat to shooting at the moment.”
The migration of wildfowl to the UK brings a greater risk fo the disease spreading.
Dominic says there are reports of ducks and geese found with bird flu. He says wildfowling hasn’t been significantly affected. He says that the government conducted a risk assessment into shooting activities and concluded the risk was low.
Bird flu is an annual challenge. This year’s outbreak is the worst the UK and Europe have faced.
Dominic says bird flu could become a regular event but what is happening this year is an exception due to the infectious and aggressive strain.
He says: “There are many different strains of bird flu, the one we have at the moment, and we’ve had since October last year is far more damaging than anything we’ve ever seen before.
If we have a different strain in the future, it’s likely to be less damaging. But there is certainly as a sector, the same as the poultry sector, we’ll be learning to live with bird flu.”