This morning DEFRA, the government’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has issued strict instructions to all poultry keepers to keep them indoors for 30 days. Unusually, this instruction doesn’t just apply to commercial poultry keepers, but backyard flocks as well.

The Chief Veterinary Officer, Professor Nigel Gibbons, says that this is a precautionary measure, and is intended to prevent the H5N8 avian influenza strain which is spreading across Europe from becoming established in the UK.

What is “Bird Flu”?

Influenza viruses are common across a wide range of different species, including humans (hence the annual flu jabs for at-risk groups). Usually they stay within their species; bird flu, however, is unusual because it relatively easily adapts to new hosts. This strain, for example, has been found in dead wild birds in Austria, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine and the Russian Federation. The outbreak affected many wild bird species, including ducks, seagulls, geese, swans, other wild waterfowl and even birds of prey.

It is thought to be a particular threat to chickens, ducks, turkeys and other poultry, as well as affecting zoo and pet or cage birds. It is also closely related (although not, fortunately, identical) to the H5N6 strain in China which has spread to humans, hence the government’s rapid response.

The symptoms in birds typically include a swollen head, nasal discharge, blue comb or eyelids, difficulty breathing and sometimes sudden death. Occasionally, bleeding under the skin, green diarrhoea or nerve damage (leading to paralysis or tremors) may be seen.

How is it spread?

Wild waterfowl often carry the disease in their intestines without showing symptoms; their faeces are highly infectious to other birds. In this outbreak, seagulls have been implicated as a possible route of infection as well. However, the virus can be carried on clothing or food bowls as well, so good biosecurity and hygiene is essential.

Is there any risk to humans?

At the moment, no. This strain has not managed to make the species jump yet – however, the longer humans and infected birds are in contact, the more likely this becomes. The best prevention is going to be to stop this outbreak before it becomes established in the UK.

There isn’t thought to be a risk from eating properly cooked poultry. Fortunately, the virus has not yet reached the UK – these measures are preventative!

How should I protect my birds?

If at all possible, house them and do not let them out for 30 days. If you cannot do this, it is essential that you isolate them from wild birds and their faeces, to prevent them from contracting the disease. For more advice, see the Defra website.

If you suspect your birds may be infected, or you find dead wild birds, contact the DEFRA helpline on 03459 33 55 77, or call your vet.