At the moment, the UK is tackling its largest-ever outbreak of bird flu. Over 100 cases have been confirmed across the country since the start of November 2021.
This means that all captive bird keepers – everyone who keeps birds as pets, captive poultry or part of a farm – must currently be on high alert and house their birds indoors. The rules are to try and contain the disease.
The rules apply to everybody who keeps birds, whether they have just a few or thousands
All bird keepers should keep an eye on their birds for any sign of avian influenza. They must alert the authorities if they spot anything. To help mitigate the situation, the government announced new housing measures in November 2021. Any chickens, ducks, geese or any other birds you may own are legally required to stay indoors and you must follow strict biosecurity measures.
Indoors includes a suitable chicken coop or an outbuilding. This could mean your chickens don’t currently have enough space for 24/7 living, so you may need to consider rehoming them.
But what does this mean if you own chickens or other birds in your backyard?
Keeping pet chickens: Avian flu guidance
All birds, including chickens (which are now commonly kept in backyards up and down the UK), must currently be kept indoors. This means they are not allowed to free-roam around a garden or anywhere else which is unsecured.
If they are not kept indoors, the disease could spread amongst your birds. They could die or need to be culled, and you could be fined.
Birds migrating to the UK from Europe for winter and summer weather can spread the disease, as can other wildlife. It is crucial you do not allow your chickens to come into contact with these wild birds. The same applies if you own wild birds of prey or waterfowl.
Avian influenza can also be carried on the clothing and shoes of humans. So before entering a bird enclosure, you need to wash your hands and change or disinfect your footwear. You can also cover up clothing and shoes in biohazard suits or shoe covers.
The legal requirement to house birds will remain until further notice.
What else you can do to minimise the risk of avian flu
It is really vital that you keep everything clean. Just 1g of faeces could cause 1 million birds to die. So as well as disinfecting and cleaning clothing (or better still, using disposable clothing) you need to thoroughly clean and disinfect their housing daily.
Defra’s list of approved disinfectants can be found here.
You should also minimise the contact between the chickens and humans to one or two people. If you have children, don’t allow them to visit your birds as they could normally. Keep disinfectant at important contact points, such as before entering enclosures or indeed the garden or farm as a whole.
You should also ensure that the housing is not accessible to wild birds. All food should be kept away from the view and access of wild birds, and you should not encourage them to come into your garden.
Can humans catch bird flu?
Yes, humans can contract bird flu. However, it is worth noting that the government has currently said the risk to humans is low.
Bird flu also poses a low risk to human food for UK consumers, too. There is no impact on the consumption of properly cooked poultry and eggs.
What happens if my birds catch bird flu?
If even just one or two of your birds are infected with avian flu, they will all need to be humanely culled.
If you suspect there is some sort of illness within your flock, contact your veterinarian. On the other hand, if there is no doubt they are showing the signs of the disease, contact your local Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) office.
What happens if I find a dead or ill wild bird in my garden?
Do not touch or pick up any wild birds or waterfowl who are sick or injured. Nor should you pick up any birds who have died.
The threat of bird flu is particularly high in migratory wild birds. Coming into contact with a bird that has contracted or died from avian flu puts you at high risk, and risks spreading the disease if you have other wild birds in your garden or keep birds.
Members of the public are encouraged to report dead wild waterfowl (swans, geese or ducks) or gulls, or five or more dead wild birds of other species in the same location. Contact the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) helpline on 0300 303 8268, or Defra by calling 03459 33 55 77.
Why can eggs no longer be classed as free-range?
For an egg to be classed as free-range, hens must be able to have unlimited, unrestricted access to outdoor pastures in daylight hours. At night, free-range hens are housed in barns which keep them safe. There must be plenty of space for natural behaviours, and a maximum of nine hens per square meter of usable inside space.
Because of the rules, chickens cannot have unlimited access to outdoor space at the moment. So, neither chickens farmed on a mass level nor backyard chickens can be called free-range.