SINCE 14 December, poultry flocks in Great Britain have been subject to a housing order, meaning they must be kept indoors by law and not allowed to range.

Eggs and poultrymeat can still be labelled as free-range for up to 16 weeks from the date the order is imposed (or from placement if it comes afterwards) under a derogation in marketing regulations.

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The end of that 16-week period is fast approaching (early April) and, if birds are housed beyond it, matters become more complicated.

In 2016, a housing order extended beyond what was then a 12-week derogation.

A labour-intensive solution was found; packaging was over stickered with a label explaining that birds had been housed for their welfare.

There is little appetite to repeat this exercise this year, in particular during a pandemic where staff at egg packers and chicken processors must be kept socially distant.

Fortunately, it has now been a month since the latest outbreak in poultry and even longer since a wild bird detection in the UK.

Wild waterfowl are already migrating back to their summer breeding grounds.

The risk is far from gone, but the signs are positive that the virus is in retreat.

Officials at Defra have been meeting with industry representatives this week to discuss the current situation, and ministers are expected to make a decision in the coming weeks.

It is understood that, when it is lifted, the housing order will transition to becoming a country-wide Avian Influenza Prevention Zone (in which biosecurity is mandatory by law) before a fuller relaxation as the weather warms.

Whatever the date ­– and many in the poultry industry are hoping it comes by the end of this month – producers need as much notice as possible.

That will allow them to get ranges ready by removing potential vectors for disease like wild bird droppings and preparing hens for life outdoors once again.

It will also undoubtedly be a relief to farmers. While birds used to ranging have proved resilient to enforced housing, allowing them out reduces the risk of red mite problems and other disease issues arising.