Avian influenza prevention measures are expected to be extended in Northern Ireland (NI) to include a compulsory housing order for all poultry from Wednesday 23 December.

The measure has been recommended by DAERA’s veterinary service and is currently with Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots for approval.

It would make it a legal requirement for all poultry, including free-range birds, to be housed full-time until the order is lifted.

Speaking at an online meeting on Wednesday evening, DAERA chief vet Robert Huey pointed out that several recent bird flu cases in Britain were in indoor flocks, so a housing order will not remove the threat of an outbreak in the NI poultry industry.

“A housing order is not a panacea. It doesn’t cure all ills. It does not replace good biosecurity,” he warned.

Serious threat

The seriousness of the avian influenza threat to the NI poultry sector this winter was made clear at the meeting, with Huey describing an outbreak as “almost inevitable”.

The H5N8 strain of the disease has been detected in wild birds across the island of Ireland. Last week, an outbreak was confirmed in a free-range turkey flock in Wicklow.

A compulsory housing order has been in place in Britain since 14 December.

There have been numerous avian influenza outbreaks in Britain so far this winter, with the most recent case being confirmed in Willington, South Derbyshire, on 15 December.

“The only time [avian influenza] risk [status] will go back to low again is when migratory birds return back north again, which is around the end of April or so,” Fraser Menzies from DAERA said.

Free range label

A compulsory housing order can eventually raise issues for free-range egg producers, as products are no longer classified as free range if birds have been housed for a continuous period of 16 weeks.

However, the legislation has changed since the last time a housing order was enforced during the 2016-17 winter. Back then, poultry products were no longer free range after 12 weeks of full-time housing.