Member insight: caught up in AI control zones twice in a year

Published 31 December 2021

Poultry
Avian influenza measures on Daniel Blenkiron's farm

In November 2021, a case of the highly pathogenic H5N1 was confirmed near to former Poultry Industry Programme participant Daniel Blenkiron’s holding. He reflects on being caught up in avian influenza (AI) restrictions for the second time in a year and explains how he approached the situation this time round.

You can read about Daniel's previous experience in Avian Influenza Disease Control Zones here.

On his farm in North Yorkshire, Daniel grows around 500 acres of cereal and forage crops, and rears around 260,000 broiler chickens, supplying the wholesale chicken market. When a case of highly pathogenic avian influenza was confirmed nearby, he had some important decisions to make.

The situation

We’ve been caught up in avian influenza zones twice, with the first time being last December and this year being earlier in November, both of which were highly pathogenic.

I felt like last year’s case helped prepare me for this year, even though I wasn’t expecting it. We happened to be empty at the time this year. It was in November, and we were setting up the sheds for a new batch of chicks arriving.

I received a phone call from a local veterinary practice who mentioned that there may be a suspected case of AI in our area, so I decided to send a message out to some of my poultry contacts in the area and got a message back later to say it was one of these farmers.

On this occasion, it put us in the 10km Surveillance Zone (SZ) straight away, and because we were setting up our sheds for the new chicks on the Friday afternoon, ready for them to arrive on the Monday and Tuesday, there would be no chance of us getting a licence in time.

The suspected case then became a confirmed case of AI in our area.

Proximity

My next concern was that the next-door neighbour of the suspected case, who was also a free-range layer, could potentially have AI spread onto his farm, meaning we would be only 2.8km away.

We kind of made the best decision because he put his birds away on that Friday night, and we set a date to place our chicks on the Thursday and Friday of the end of that week, and we got our licence in time.

Worrying signs

The chicks arrived as planned, and then two to three days later, on that Sunday afternoon, I received a phone call from the farm that was only 2.8km away to say that they’d begun to see signs of AI.

My heart dropped. I didn’t want to believe it, as I was aware of the implications of being in the 3km Protection Zone (PZ), and we had literally just placed the chicks. My gut told me to delay it and I knew we probably should have done, but you never know – it’s hindsight.

Planning

The good news was that we had time to play with and plan. On the Monday morning, I spoke to our vet, and informed the processor of our situation. I spoke about how we could best manage it.

The processor advised us that they thought they had Level 2 designation already in place, but it turned out they’d only actually had their Level 1 from when we got it last year.

Fortunately, we had time to plan and put things in place. We were hoping that the PZ would merge with the Surveillance Zone in time for our first batch of chickens to leave the farm.

Researching

In the meantime, I spent time researching previous case examples of timescales to understand when the PZ would likely merge with the Surveillance Zone, to allow us to plan our first movements.

I spoke with the farmer 2.8km away to ask on progress of the procedure, and when they were due to finish their primary cleanse and disinfection. I learnt that the PZ would merge with the SZ a minimum of 21 days after this had been carried out.

All this time I kept the processers up to date with this information hoping that it would be clear of the first thin and had been informed by a local APHA officer that the predicted dates for the PZ restrictions to merge with the SZs was 23 December.

Sooner rather than later

We decided to try and take those birds sooner rather than wait for that date with it being so close to Christmas, as it may not have lifted. There was too much uncertainty with that.

Fortunately, the processor had applied for the Level 2 designation with the Food Standards Agency, and we had a few weeks to play with. They were eventually granted a Level 2 designation and we then applied for a licence straight away to take our birds on the Saturday.

More time

The picture above was taken on Saturday morning in the early hours. We had eight loads of birds – we normally have seven loads of smalls for the first thin, but we took an extra load just to give us a bit more time in case the PZ merge with the SZ was delayed.

In the picture, I’m disinfecting the outsides of the sheds and the wellingtons of the catchers before they would walk in the shed, all the way up to where the wagon would be parked alongside the building.

There’s a lot more restrictions being in a PZ, for the processor there’s a lot more work involved, and they need that separation of processing, so we were very fortunate that they were able to process them on the Saturday, and have the timescale to process them and fit them in.

Confidence

I feel this time we had more confidence, as I knew about the movement policies. I had created my own guidance from last year’s outbreak nearby, and I had more time to plan this time as our birds had just arrived on the farm. Researching other outbreaks and likely timescales of lifting helped.

So far there have been a few delays, maybe because of the number of outbreaks we’ve had up in North Yorkshire. We’ve not seen any zones merged or lifted in this area yet.

Lessons learnt

After what I’ve learnt this time, I would encourage people to:

  • Learn who the poultry farms are in your area, and certainly those within 3km. Get their contact details and communicate with them if you have cases in your area. It’s not going to help against the small backyard flocks but knowing who is at risk is certainly going to help with the commercial side.
  • If it comes up in your area, I would consider your options for contingency plans, for example delaying chick placement, reflecting on my gut feeling earlier about that second farm that was within 3km.
  • Familiarise yourself with the restrictions Defra typically introduce in Disease Control Zones. The NFU have produced a guide to AI Disease Control Zones here.
  • Check with your processor to see if they’re Level 1 or 2 designated and communicate with them so everyone’s sharing information. If you’re in the zone and your processor can take the birds, do try and take a few more out of the sheds, so it gives you a bit more time. If you’re an egg producer or breeder then make sure your packing centre or hatchery also has the appropriate designation to receive eggs from within disease control zones.
  • If you have multiple enterprises, investigate whether it’s possible to get a separate CPH for your poultry unit (we did this last year after some of our arable land was within a 3km PZ).
  • Reach out to your local APHA officer. This could help you plan ahead for the future.

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