Bird flu – what shoots can do to help
As avian influenza continues to grip the UK, Richard Negus breaks down the latest guidelines and explains what shoots can do to help
I had a meeting a fortnight ago with one of my farming customers. We had presented him with his hedgerow management plan, as some 53km was set to come under our care. For the next five years we would lay or coppice, plant new, change cutting regimes and fill gaps. All this would be done at no little expense to him and considerable physical effort by Richard Gould and I. The sole reason for all of this cost and labour was to improve the biodiversity potential of our customer’s Norfolk farm. His ambition was admirable, to ensure these arteries of the landscape fill with bird life.
This bold and selfless step is not uncommon with farmers today, yet in this particular case the altruism was marked — more wild birds on this farm could spell total disaster for his business. My customer is a chicken farmer. “Bird flu won’t come down my drive,” he told me, “it will fly in over the hedge.” This is reality in our countryside right now. Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) is bringing some species to the brink of extinction and threatening farm and rural businesses with bankruptcy. Yet for all that, the general public seems to be either oblivious or ambivalent towards a disease that could all too easily become more deadly than Covid.
Currently, an avian influenza protection zone (AIPZ) has been declared across Great Britain. This comes in the wake of increased bird flu detection in both wild birds and commercial flocks. The AIPZ means all bird-keepers must implement strict biosecurity measures. The use of foot baths, vehicle washing and clothing protocols will, it is hoped, mean that the disease will not “come up the drive”.
In the East Anglian counties of Suffolk, Norfolk and more rural parts of Essex, further restrictions have been put in place. Here flocks must be housed until notice is given by Defra. Most poultry farmers had already taken this costly step weeks before the ministry imposed it. It was well understood by farmers that in times of siege, the best defence is strong walls; these efforts may lessen the threat from “over the hedge”.
This covers domestic and commercial poultry, but what is the situation with wild birds? As of 17 October the risk to wild birds has been increased by Defra from medium to high. Sadly, the raised level of risk has done nothing to prevent the decimation of some seabird species. Particularly battered by HPAI have been gannets, terns and great skuas. So threatened are these species that there are calls for an increased level of predator control on islands where these birds reside during winter in a bid to secure what remains of failing populations.
The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) has closed two centres due to outbreaks, while in others measures are being taking to prevent the spread, including disinfectant foot baths, the housing of some birds and suspending hand-feeding. The WWT, having considered the risks, believes the countryside should remain open, an identical view to that taken by wildfowling clubs who have followed similar protocols.
All wildfowling clubs have sent out Defra guidelines to members for reporting suspected bird flu. There have been calls from some anti-shooting groups and high-profile individuals for a ban on wildfowling during the raised HPAI threat in order to ‘lessen disturbance’. Shooting, they say, may lead to a greater risk of infected migrant birds coming into contact with uninfected native stocks. Cynically there has been no call from these people for a cessation of walking in coastal areas, sea kayaking or inshore sailing, all of which present a similar if not greater risk of disturbing wildfowl and waders from foreshore and marshland roosts and resides than fowling poses.
Gamebirds obviously come under the aegis of wild birds. Since 12 October a ban was enacted in the East Anglian AIPZ, making it illegal to release gamebirds after this date there. Much has been made of this by journalists with axes to grind. However, there seems to be plenty of opinion and very little accuracy in much of the writing. In an interview with The Guardian’s Helena Horton, Jeff Knott, the RSPB’s director of policy and advocacy, declared: “The most important thing from our perspective is the bird flu situation underlines the risks of importing and releasing millions of birds into the British countryside with very little oversight.” It is curious Mr Knott went unchallenged in downplaying this avian pandemic as a ‘situation’ and for that matter the many other inaccuracies within his statement.
As Shooting Times’ Matt Cross highlighted in an article in May this season has seen a UK ban on imports of chicks and eggs due to HPAI in Continental gamebird rearing areas. This situation has led to a dramatic decline in the availability of gamebirds. There is however no scientific evidence that suggests that any outbreak of HPAI in the UK has originated from released gamebirds.
However, it is perhaps important to remember that the accepted code of best practice insists that all birds should be released before the start of their shooting season. Similarly the practice of releasing to replenish or replace any birds already released and shot in that season is also breaking the code.
Since HPAI rules were brought into force, anyone releasing a partridge after 1 September or a pheasant after 1 October, or ‘topping up’, is not only breaking the Code of Good Shooting Practice — a code adopted by all of the British shooting organisations, the GWCT, the Game Farmers’ Association and the National Game Dealers’ Association — they may now also be breaking the law.
There have been, as yet, unsubstantiated reports of disreputable shoots disregarding the code regarding releasing and/or topping up, albeit with British-reared stock. This is an abhorrent practice in any year, but under the current spectre of bird flu, any individual found to be doing so should be reported to the authorities.
Shooting has already been negatively impacted by bird flu this season, and it is the duty of all keepers, Guns, beaters and pickers-up to mitigate meaningfully against our sport being responsible for any outbreak or adding fuel to the fire of our detractors. Shooting can currently continue, even within areas of greater restriction such as East Anglia. However, should Defra deem that further HPAI outbreaks pose a threat to human health, they may impose national or regional shooting bans.
There are currently no restrictions on the movement of gamebird carcasses nor its entry into the human food chain. However, game dealers may be unwilling to accept game from areas in protection or surveillance zones, largely because it may affect their export status.
Protocols for shoot days are essentially a matter of common sense.
There is little point in employing foot dips and disinfecting zones unless what you are disinfecting is actually clean and — let’s be honest — shooting tends to be a somewhat muddy affair. Therefore, the safest and most simple method is to disinfect your boots at home, carry them to the car and only put them on when you arrive at the shoot, then at the end of the day disinfect prior to returning home. Ensure you are using a Defra-approved avian influenza disinfectant, and at the correct dilution rate.
It would also be best practice, however disreputable your vehicle may be, to give it a wash and ensure footwells are clean before you go shooting so that disinfectant procedures are effective rather than lip service.
Finally, if you are taking a brace or two home, ensure you hang your birds in a lockable shed or similar and dispose of feathers and guts responsibly. When it comes to your dog it is now suggested that greater biosecurity measures should be taken. There is some recent research from the USA which indicates that foxes and coyotes have become infected after scavenging upon birds that have succumbed to HPAI. Therefore I am afraid it should be hair-wash night for Fido after a day’s shooting.
The long-term prognosis for bird flu is unknown. What is known is that shooting must play its part. We must neither bring bird flu down the drive or help it in flying over the hedge.