Bird flu cases fuel Spanish ‘mega-farm’ dispute

New outbreaks come ahead of key regional vote

An outbreak of avian flu in northern Spain has led to the culling of 130,000 chickens and added fuel to a debate about the country’s intensive farming methods.

The highly pathogenic H5N1 virus was detected in a farm in the small town of Íscar, when an unusually large number of birds started dying. On Wednesday, the agriculture ministry confirmed the outbreak, leading to the culling of all of the birds.

Three further outbreaks were confirmed this week in Andalusia, southern Spain, including one on a farm with 39,500 birds.

In a statement, the agriculture ministry recommended “minimising unnecessary contact with birds that have clinical symptoms or which are found dead in the countryside”. However, it added that the virus cannot be transmitted to humans via cooked bird meat, eggs or other related products.


The latest cases in Spain follow a number of recent outbreaks of avian flu across Europe. The Netherlands and France recently registered cases and the virus was detected this week in a small flock of mixed species birds in Enniskillen, in the latest outbreak detected in Ireland.


In Spain, the recent cases come amid an already fierce debate about the sustainability of the country’s intensive livestock and poultry farms.

“Industrial livestock is a time bomb,” said Greenpeace in response to the case in Íscar. “It is urgent that this destructive model, which is putting in danger the health of the planet and also of people, should end.”

There are 7,100 intensive livestock and poultry farms across Spain, according to the country’s Register of Pollutant Emissions and Sources (PRTR), with about half of those deemed large-scale. Pig farming has seen particularly strong growth in recent years, driven by an increase in demand for pork both domestically and in countries such as China. Spain has now overtaken Germany as Europe’s prime pork producer.

In response, campaign groups have sprung up across Spain to combat these so-called “mega-farms”, arguing that they pollute local water supplies, contaminate the air and make local areas uninhabitable. The consumer minister, Alberto Garzón, echoed such concerns in December by querying the sustainability of mega-farms and the quality of meat they produce.

Political dispute

His comments triggered a political dispute, with opposition politicians labelling the left-wing government of Pedro Sánchez anti-farming and even some of his Socialist colleagues criticising the minister’s comments.

An election in Spain’s largest region, Castilla y León, this Sunday has raised the temperature of the debate. The case of bird flu in Íscar is the second outbreak detected in the farming-reliant region over the last month.

The conservative Popular Party (PP) is hoping to continue to govern the region, which it has controlled for the last 35 years. However, polls suggest it may need the support of the far-right Vox in order to form a new administration.

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Spain