State orders farmers to keep birds indoors until May
Minister says move needed to minimise bird flu risk despite rule being lifted in North
The order issued by the Department of Agriculture in December, to owners of captive birds as well as poultry farmers, meant the loss of free-range and organic status for chicken, egg and turkey producers. Photograph: Chor Sokunthea/Reuters
An order for poultry farmers to keep their flocks indoors to minimise the risk of avian flu will remain in place until the end of April, despite the restriction being lifted in the North on St Patrick’s Day.
The order issued by the Department of Agriculture in December, to owners of captive birds as well as poultry farmers, meant the loss of free-range and organic status for chicken, egg and turkey producers.
But Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed has stressed that by continuing to keep poultry indoors “we have OIE [World Organisation for Animal Health] international certification that our confined poultry flocks are avian influenza free.”
Mr Creed said: “This is important in terms of the market access it gives us. The United Kingdom does not have such status, meaning Northern Ireland does not.”
The State produces almost 600 million eggs every year as well as an estimated 70 million chickens and four million turkeys. Most poultry production is in the Border region.
There have been 12 confirmed cases of the H5N8 strain of avian flu in wild birds in the State and the first one was identified in Wexford in late December “and the remaining cases arose on a rather frequent basis in the intervening period”, the Minister said. There have been two confirmed cases in Northern Ireland.
The virulence of the current strain in Europe over the winter season led to the introduction of the order to keep poultry indoors to prevent contamination from migratory birds.
The World Health Organisation has said the risk of transmission to humans of the H5N8 strain is relatively low.
Mr Creed said the situation this winter was unprecedented in terms of the number of incidents and countries affected. “If the epidemic is prolonged as it was with the H5N1 strain in 2006, it could go on until May.”
He said there was concern that a strain currently in southeast Asia which has affected humans – HPAI H5N6 – could affect people in the next migratory season.
The issue was raised in the Dáil this week by Sinn Féin TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, in whose Cavan-Monaghan constituency a large number of poultry producers are based.
He asked if the Minister would lift the restriction in the South since it is to be lifted on March 17th North of the Border. “Is the date set by the Minister absolute and not for reconsideration?”
Mr Creed said his decision “reflects a careful assessment and evaluation of the information and data specific to Ireland and is in the best interests of the poultry industry in Ireland”.
He pointed out that even by retaining flocks indoors, they could not guarantee that avian flu would be avoided. But he said it was the best possible course of action to minimise the risk.
The Minister added that by the end of April “migratory activities will have peaked and subsided”.
More than 1,000 incidents of bird flu have been recorded in 20 EU member states this year and 750 last year – 405 in poultry, 29 in captive birds and 574 cases in wild birds. Hungary and France have had the highest number of cases.