UFU fears annual bird flu threat

A senior Ulster Farmers’ Union figure fears that the particularly potent strain of bird flu now spreading through the Province could become an annual threat to the poultry industry.

David McClure said that the infection is ‘probably the single biggest concern to the industry’ in Northern Ireland
David McClure said that the infection is ‘probably the single biggest concern to the industry’ in Northern Ireland

David McClure, the UFU’s poultry policy officer, was speaking to the News Letter after reports of wild birds behaving strangely and dropping dead in parks across Northern Ireland.

The strain of bird flu which is causing major concern is called H5N1.

This was first confirmed in Monaghan, near the Armagh border, on December 3.

Then on December 5 it had been confirmed in wild birds at the Waterworks and the Harbour Estate, both in north Belfast, and Monlough Lake near Carryduff.

As of yesterday morning, two premises – one in Aughnacloy, Co Tyrone, one in Broughshane, Co Antrim – had officially tested positive after earlier suspected outbreaks.

Mr McClure urged all fowl owners to register their animals with the authorities and apply tight biosecurity measures, saying that this is not the first time such a virulent “high-pathogen” brand of avian flu has reached Northern Ireland.

“It does point towards that this is going to be a seasonal concern, moving forward,” he said.

“I’d say they [farmers] are very worried. They can do their best, but there’s so much we don’t know about this – we don’t know if our best will be good enough.

“It’s probably the single biggest concern to the industry at this minute in time.”

He added: “Why would the migratory birds bring it two years in a row, and then decide never to bring it again for 10 years?

“If I was a betting man, I don’t think I’d be betting that is going to happen.

“It’s probably going to be a feature of our industry.”

He added that the main method of arrival is via birds coming from as far away as Kazakhstan.

“How can you control that?” he said.

“You can’t put a sign up in the Irish Sea to say: ‘You can’t come in here’.”

As a rough guesstimate, he imagines there are perhaps six million or so poultry birds alive in Northern Ireland at any one time.

All it takes for flu to infect an entire farm is for someone to stand in a single wild bird dropping, then traipse it into a coop.

And if an animal falls sick, that triggers an automatic cull of the entire flock.

Whilst the Department for Agriculture, the Environment and Rural Affairs will compensate a farmer for the value of the dead birds, such an infection will put the building out of action for months whilst it is disinfected – costing valuable time and effort, which farmers have no similar entitlement to recoup.