Threat as NI eases bird flu precautions

Ireland faces a new threat to its avian influenza-free status tomorrow, when precautions against the disease are eased north of the border.

Confinement of all poultry and captive birds indoors away from wild birds or animals continues in the south, with bio-security measures, while poultry owners in the north can let their birds outside, but with extra bio-security requirements.

Agriculture Minister Michael Creed said the bird flu epidemic sweeping across Europe is unprecedented in terms of the number of events and countries affected.

“If the epidemic is prolonged, as with the H5N1 strain in 2006, it could go on to May. There’s also concern that HPAI H5N6, which is currently in South East Asia and has affected humans, could appear in Europe during the next migratory season.”

Since December 2016, there have been 12 confirmed cases of the H5N8 strain of avian influenza in wild birds in Ireland. In Northern Ireland, there have been two confirmed cases. 

But as no cases were found in farmed birds, the Republic retains its World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) international certification that our confined poultry flocks are avian influenza free.

“This is important for the market access it gives us. The UK does not have this status, so Northern Ireland does not,” said Minister Creed. 

“Our position is different from the North, as we have OIE acknowledged avian influenza free status. That allows us to have unaffected markets. If we were to have an incident, the status would disappear.”

In Europe, the H5N8 virus was first detected in Hungary on October 28. 

There have been 405 outbreaks in poultry, 29 in captive birds and 574 cases in wild birds. 

These cases have been recorded in 20 member states in 2017, as well as 750 cases in 2016. Hungary and France have had the highest number of outbreaks in poultry.

For the first time ever in Ireland, the Department of Agriculture stipulated at Christmas the requirement to keep birds confined, and Minister Creed decided last week to extend confinement to April 30.

The decision means poultry meat or eggs will no longer have ‘Free Range’ status from tomorrow.

Eggs and poultry meat will now be labelled as Barn Eggs, Barn-Reared, or from birds temporarily housed for their welfare.

Minister Creed said: “We cannot even guarantee that, by retaining the flocks indoors, we will avoid bird flu. It is, however, the best possible course of action to minimise the risk. 

"I don’t propose a review between now and the end of April. We will keep the matter under review at that stage, given the incidents. It is critical to note migratory activities will have peaked and subsided by that stage.”

The poultry sector accounts for about 3% of gross agricultural output, and supports around 6,000 jobs, mostly in rural areas. Farm-gate sales in 2015 were €190 million, and poultry meat exports were €320m.

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