As Therese Coffey, MP for Suffolk Costal, takes office as the newly appointed minister for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, she will have to deal with a serious crisis facing both natural wild life and the farming industry.
Bird flu, technically the HPA1 H5N1varient of Avian influenza, has been present in the UK for over a year. 189 cases were identified, with 55 in the last month, of which 43 were in East Anglia.
There are a number of different types and variants of bird flu, and based on information from the NHS, some variants, including H5N1 could transfer to humans. This is, however, very rare and can occur only after prolonged close exposure.
Bird flu in Norfolk
During the summer, it was reported that the virus had had a devastating impact on the sea bird colonies, including those on the Norfolk coast and more recently on the iconic Norfolk Broads, where teams from Marine and Wildlife Rescue (MWR) and the RSPCB were searching for ill birds. It was reported that on one patrol, in a five mile stretch between Wroxham and Horning, some 35 bird carcases were found.
Efforts to control the spread of bird flu
In August, the RSPB, in an attempt to limit the spread, called for a halt on the release of game birds and Wildfowl for shooting. Defra did not order a halt. However, it did, implement the compulsory housing of birds in Norfolk, Suffolk and parts of Essex. Earlier in the year, it had also ordered restrictions on transporting game birds within 10km of an infection control zone, or, if the flock was infected. Equally, no meat from birds or the animal itself is allowed to pass through a control zone, impacting on the transport of goods.
Last month, media reports indicated that some game birds in Norfolk had tested positive. It is not clear if the birds caught it after being released or if they were infectious prior to that.
The increase in cases despite best efforts has sounded alarm bells across the East of England. The industry continues to apply bio security measures, but the virus continues to spread through the native wild bird population.
East Anglia and bird farming
It is sometimes easy for those not in the industry to forget that East Anglia is well-known for Poultry production in the UK, with household names such as Bernard Matthews originating in the region. Equally, and also impacted by bird flu, close to half of ducks consumed in the UK come from East Anglian farms.
As of October, it has been estimated that in the region of half a million birds have been lost to the industry in Norfolk alone. The outbreak has devastated small holdings and farms across the region, with those affected calling for faster action by the government; Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman is calling for a shift to a ‘war footing’ to prevent businesses from collapsing.
The outbreak comes at a time when the poultry industry, and farmers in general, are being encouraged to protect their own mental health, whilst they are still recovering from Covid-19 and Brexit.
Brexit and Covid-19
The continued delays to the implementation of checks to imported animals and animal products has angered vets and industry professionals. With no way of monitoring the health and wellbeing of incoming animals, or the condition of imported animal products, there are concerns over the long term bio security of the United kingdom.
Equally, it was just a year ago when the first warnings of a crisis in the turkey farming industry made the national media. A combination of a lack of seasonal workers and the pandemic resulted in a lack of domestic output. It was imported turkeys that filled the gaps on the shelves.
It is in this uneven playing field that the industry tries to compete. Warnings were given at the time of the referendum results but fell on deaf ears.
Support for farmers
Farmers have been engaged in a battle to keep bird flu out of their flocks for over a year now. It has remained largely ignored by the public and by politicians. An example of this is that not many of the general public know that Avian influenza is in the UK, nor that is a notifiable disease in animals.
This means that members of the public, as well as industry professionals, are legally obliged to report cases of infection to the authorities.
Defra advises that a member of the public should call their helpline on 03459 33 55 77 if they find, one or more dead owl or bird of prey, 3 or more dead gulls or wild waterfowl such as swans or geese, or five or more dead birds of any species.
By raising public awareness, there is the opportunity to support an industry that appears to be blighted by political indifference.