A Beginners Guide to Avian Flu
We look at the effects that Avian Flu has had on the industry this Season and look at what can be done in 2023
Avian Flu is not new. It has been around in the UK, albeit not in large quantities since September 2006 when a dead mute swan washed up on a Scottish shore. However, October 2021 was to be the beginning of a much larger outbreak which, at the time was described by The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control as “the largest observed in Europe so far”. The game changer for shooting has however been the very significant increase in outbreaks across Europe including the following three regions of France; Pays de la Loire, Maine-et-Loire and Vendee. This is where the main centre for French Game Farms are, and these farms have been major suppliers to UK Game Farmers and Shoots; indeed 75% of partridges released in the UK and 25% of pheasants emanate from this region of France. Of even more concern is the fact that large numbers of migratory waterfowl throughout Northern Europe have become infected with the highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 strain of Avian Flu. Many of these birds have not died immediately after being infected, but have been able to carry the disease on to the UK and elsewhere.
DEFRA imposed a housing order for all captive birds from 7th November. We do not believe the official statistics of bird flu cases is at all accurate, but believe that there are far more across the country than have so far been reported. This is not surprising when the head of Alpha’s National Emergency epidemiology group facility explained that a single wild bird dropping could contain thousands of infective doses. A dose can be carried on any vector including rodents, clothing, bedding, feed and equipment.
People have been asking us whether we think that Avian Flu is going to die out and if so, how quickly. The best advice that we have been able to obtain is that Avian Flu is going to be with us for quite some time to come, but we believe it’s effect should lessen in time. We would, however, be deluding ourselves in thinking that it is not capable of then re-emerging on some scale. In the UK we are most vulnerable in the autumn when migratory birds visit. This has caused a mass of outbreaks both along the coast but also inland. Some sea bird populations have been dramatically affected and the same has occurred where the disease has got into large numbers of pheasants, particularly in the West Country and East Anglia. Pheasants seem to be more prone to the disease, or at least die more quickly than partridges, but at the time of going to print, no-one has any idea as to whether there are any birds which are not susceptible to this disease. What we do know is that very few birds currently have any build-up of resistance. The question has been asked as to whether this strain of Avian Flu can infect and then go on to kill Red Grouse. The best advice that we have obtained is that it could. Crossover from released pheasants and partridges on the edge of a Moor, particularly via drinking places, would seem to be an obvious transmission point. Fortunately, at this time of the year water availability is not a major issue. The most effective means of transmission is through bird faeces and therefore where birds congregate together in numbers, poses the greatest risk; this therefore could develop next Spring and Summer on Moors.
Where does this take us in the future?
Firstly, if you have Avian Flu in your Game birds, then immediate culling is the way forward. There is no medicine available and a delay in culling merely increases the risk of transmission. Culled birds should be disposed of correctly i.e. incinerated. If you think that your birds are looking ill, then although it is not absolutely certain the disease they have is Avian Flu, it is currently the most likely and the above steps should be followed.
Our advice for the 2023 season is that Shoots should now be talking to their normal Game Suppliers about what they are thinking of doing for next year, where they are going to be getting their eggs from, and what they think their availability of birds to sell is going to be. We do not believe that Avian Flu is going to be eradicated in France or indeed anywhere else very soon. We are advising Shoots to not only split their orders i.e. if they are buying any quantity of birds then to at least buy from two different Game Farms, but also to consider in the longer term whether they should be rearing themselves. Whilst the current restrictions (imposed on 7th November), means that all poultry including Game has to be kept inside, these restrictions will be lifted at some stage, and we think that for pheasants in particular, it will definitely be worthwhile Shoots considering rearing their own birds. This was the norm until 25/30 years ago, with a pheasant laying pen behind every Keeper’s house. Whilst this brings with it both some additional cost and also some risk, we suggest that Shoots seriously relook at this option.
In the meantime, and for the rest of this season, Shoots should be very careful with their biosecurity measures (and our advice on these and what to do can be found on our website (www.jmosborne.co.uk) and particularly hosts should ensure that they reduce the risk of Avian Flu being transmitted by Guns, Beaters, Pickers up (including dogs) coming onto their Shoots. We have perhaps been less focussed on this in recent years (since Foot & Mouth) but we now need to make this a priority going forward.
In short, Avian Flu is a major problem for Game Shoots, but we think that it is to some degree or another, likely to be with us for some time to come, and we need to better prepare ourselves for it and how we can live with it. We have no doubt (and it is already occurring) that our opponents will be using this as a stick to beat us with over the release of Game Birds. Whilst this has initial “attraction”, the fact that the spread of the disease has to date largely been from wildfowl and sea birds, should undermine this argument; however logic seldom applies! Whilst Avian Flu is both really nasty and can be emotionally and financially very destructive, it is something that we can in the main adjust to, and should not be a game changer; shooting has overcome bigger problems before and no doubt will do so again.