Blog written by Claire Hamlett, a freelance journalist and contributor
After spending the last five months indoors, farmed birds in England and Wales are finally allowed to go outside again as of Tuesday 18 April as mandatory housing measures that were imposed in November 2022 to stop the spread of avian flu have been lifted.
Egg producers will be glad to be able to market eggs as so-called ‘free-range’ again after having had to relabel them as ‘barn eggs’ once laying hens had been kept inside for more than 12 weeks. But ‘free-range’ meat chickens, who are typically slaughtered at only eight to ten weeks old, don’t live long enough for this 12 week rule to apply and were able to be marketed as free-range all through the bird lockdown. And even with the “scrupulous biosecurity” measures that must continue to be followed, this bird lockdown is highly unlikely to be the last.
The lockdown restrictions were imposed as the UK faced its worst outbreak of the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of bird flu yet. Since October 2021, 285 cases have been confirmed in England, with 150 of those occurring in the last six months alone. A Freedom of Information request we made to the Animal and Plant Health Agency reveals that as a result of the outbreak, just under 4 million birds were culled in 2022 and up until the end of January this year, and a total of 5,088,135 since 2019. Globally, that cull figure stands at more than 193 million since October 2021.
There are a number of ways that poultry can be killed for the purposes of disease control in the UK including electrocution, neck dislocation, and gassing. Data seen by us shows that when fewer than 100 birds were culled in 2022 because of avian flu, lethal injection, neck dislocation, and non-penetrative captive bolt to the head are commonly used. For larger flocks, the majority were killed using gas. This can be done either inside the barns where they were kept using nitrogen-filled foam. The other option is for the birds to be loaded into a gas killing container which is then filled with a gas mixture that brings the oxygen level in to below 5 percent. In either case, the birds suffocate to death. This was the most common method used on UK farms last year, sometimes in combination with captive bolt devices.
Ventilation shutdown, an extremely cruel culling method which involves shutting down the ventilation to a barn and raising the temperature, essentially cooking the birds alive, can be used as a last resort in the UK but has become widespread in the US.
In addition to the huge numbers of captive birds killed, free-living animals have been dying in droves. Migrating seabirds have been particularly badly affected, such as Svalbard barnacle geese, 13,200 of which are estimated to have been killed by H5N1 between in the winter of 2021/2022. That’s around a third of the migrating population. Other bird species impacted include herring gulls, gannets, and swans. Worryingly, the virus has also been jumping to mammals, including otters, foxes, seals and dolphins, raising the risk that it could be mutating to more easily infect humans.
The blame for this dire situation lies squarely with animal agriculture. H5N1 first emerged on a goose farm in China in 1996 and spread through Chinese poultry farms the following year. After a few quiet years, the virus reappeared in several Asian countries in 2003 and infected free-living birds, who then carried it across the globe. Through no fault of their own, free-living birds have become a reservoir of H5N1 and other strains of highly pathogenic bird flu, while poultry farms continue to create opportunities for the disease to spread locally and infect birds who land on farms to drink or scavenge spilled feed.
Yet instead of controlling what can be controlled in this catastrophe and working to phase out poultry farming, the government is propping up the industry with a generous bird flu compensation scheme. In 2022, an average of £165,374 was paid out mostly to just 251 poultry farmers who profit from operating Intensive Poultry Units (IPUs) containing tens to hundreds of thousands of distressed birds. In total, £44 million of taxpayers’ hard-earned money was spent on bailing out poultry farmers via the Bird Flu Compensation Scheme over the past five years.
Experts have criticised the compensation and mass cullings as a disease control method. “If an industry can only remain by culling millions of animals it is not sustainable,” Arjan Stegeman, professor of veterinary medicine and epidemiologist at Utrecht University told the Guardian in December. “It is becoming almost normalised now that millions of birds are being culled, which is plain wrong,” said Dan Crossley, executive director of the the Food Ethics Council.
Meanwhile, no steps are being taken to prevent another potential reservoir of avian flu from developing: pheasant and grouse shooting. Campaign group Wild Justice and the RSPB voiced their concerns about the release of millions of captive-bred birds into the wild for the autumn shooting season without anyone really knowing the consequences of doing so. “It's surely unwise to release tens of millions of captive-bred birds into the countryside at this time,” Mark Avery from Wild Justice told National Geographic. “The releases might carry avian flu but it’s more likely they'll contract avian flu and act as a reservoir for the disease, perhaps exacerbating the spread to truly wild birds, or to commercial poultry flocks. It's not a risk worth taking for recreational shooting.” But the government seems more interested in appeasing the shooting industry than protecting British wildlife or saving millions of animals who are farmed from being bred only to be gassed together a short time later.
For the animals.