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In review: last winter’s avian influenza outbreak

hens in a barn

LAST winter saw the UK – and Europe’s – largest avian influenza outbreak.

Experts predict a tough winter for poultry keepers as there is evidence that the virus has not retreated as much as it usually would in the summer months. 

See also: Defra suspends poultry disinfectants

And cases are already beginning to pop up across Europe and further east. 

 Below, we summarise a presentation from Gordon Hickman, Head of Exotic Disease Control Policy at Defra, given at the Poultry.Network Live conference in late September. 

“We’ve just dealt with the biggest outbreak that the UK has ever known,” Mr Hickman told the meeting. “Technically speaking, it’s four outbreaks because we had four different strains. 

“24 were high pathogenic, two were low pathogenic and, unusually, they were geographically spread across the UK. 

There were:

  • 22 cases in England
  • 2 cases in Scotland
  • 1 case in Wales
  • 2 cases in Northern Ireland

“Unlike the 2016/2017 outbreak, which was a roughly an even split between backyard and commercial flocks, last winter 70% of infected premises were commercial units:”


The split was:

  • 12 in large commercial poultry (turkeys, ducks, broilers and layers)
  • 2 in housed commercial game birds
  • 5 in smaller scale commercial poultry or captive birds (more than 50 birds kept for commercial purposes)
  • 3 in backyard poultry
  • 4 in captive birds (non-poultry) (2 x birds of prey, 1 x wildlife rescue centre and 1 x wetland centre)

“We also found avian influenza in more wild birds than we’ve ever found them before. There was an unprecedented weight of infection.

Wild bird findings:

• 315 Wild birds tested positive for avian influenza in GB

• At 73 sites

• In 42 counties

• In 26 species.

• There have been findings in England, Wales, Scotland and also in Northern Ireland.

• Findings of H5N8, H5N5, H5N3 and H5N1

And it wasn’t just migratory birds testing positive – domestic breeds picked up the virus as well.

The risk was high, and so Defra introduced precautionary preventative measures to mitigate the risk of infection.

  • An Avian Influenza Prevention Zone (AIPZ) was declared in GB (effective from 5 pm on 11 November 2020)
  • Additional housing measures introduced from 14 December 2020.
  • The housing measures were lifted at 23.59 on 31 March, but the AIPZ with mandatory biosecurity measures remained in force and were strengthened for any poultry allowed access to outdoor areas.
  • The AIPZ was lifted on 15 May 2021
  • All shows, markets and gatherings were banned on 14 December 2020
  • Shows and gatherings for low-risk captive birds permitted from 21 April
  • All bird gatherings permitted from 15 May 2021

Challenges and lessons learned from the last outbreak:

  • Challenges in delivering due to COVID – staff availability, compliance with Tier restrictions, access to premises, historical ways of working
  • Successfully managed the outbreak virtually
  • Increase in backyard flock keeping as a result of COVID lockdown
  • More use of webinars, social media and focus groups
  • Use of a single point of contact for integrated companies
  • Legislation needs reviewing in light of industry developments e.g. on-farm hatching
  • Communication can always be improved
  • New trading relationship with the EU (and NI) – generally worked well, further work needed
  • Valuation & compensation not always well understood
  • Role of vets as trusted advisers and in encouraging early reporting

Contingency planning and business continuity plans are critical.

  • Producers need to be prepared to be caught up in a zone
  • Business Continuity Plan and a separate contingency plan should you become an IP
  • May not be able to move birds to slaughter on the day you had originally planned
  • May not be able to move table eggs to an egg packing centre
  • If in a zone can only licence hatching eggs, day old chicks, POL pullets and birds to slaughter within or out of the zone.
  • You cannot move ‘brood and move’ rearing birds or game birds
  • Cannot release game birds in zones
  • Need to be prepared for mandatory housing
  • There may be restrictions or bans on export from affected areas for some considerable time