Daniel Blenkiron on being caught up in AI Disease Control Zones

In late 2020, a case of highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N8 was confirmed on a turkey farm near to broiler farmer and former Poultry Industry Programme participant Daniel Blenkiron’s holding. Here he talks about his experiences of avian influenza restrictions and the impact on his business.

Daniel has 254,000 broilers and around 540 acres of arable land on his farm in North Yorkshire and when a case of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza was confirmed nearby, they were caught up in the 3km protection zone (PZ) declared around the infected premises. 

The situation

Our poultry unit was outside the 3km protection zone but still within the 10km surveillance zone (SZ); a small portion of our arable land to the south of the farm was within the 3km PZ. As a result of the farm having only one county parish holding (CPH) number, our entire farm was put under the higher restrictions of the 3km PZ.

Read What to do if you are in a Restricted, Protection or Surveillance Zone

The restrictions were implemented on a Sunday and we had 180,000 birds left on site with six loads of medium sized birds due to be processed the following day and Tuesday with the remaining birds due to leave the following week.

We initially believed we were in the 10km SZ but when we applied to the APHA for our movement licences to have the birds collected for processing, we were informed that our CPH was actually in the 3km PZ, thanks to part of some of the arable land we also own.

Complex situation

What this meant in practical terms is the movement licence would be more complex for the APHA to assess and the criteria we would need to meet would be higher before it would be granted. Of particular concern was the requirement for processors (which is the same for egg packing centres) to have what is known as Level 2 designation – this puts significant limitations and controls on the processor in the way they transport, process and market the live birds and subsequent poultry products. If we were placed in the 10km SZ the birds would need to go to a Level 1 designated processor, which has fewer restrictions and conditions.

Our processor did not have Level 1 or Level 2 designation and this left us with the very real possibility that we would have nowhere to send the birds.

Stress and anxiety

The realisation of no home for 180,000 perfectly healthy chickens brought unprecedented stress and anxiety.

The birds were growing each day and there were huge concerns about space in the sheds that could cause welfare implications.

There was no alternative processor for our birds at such short notice, so our only alternative given the timescales of broiler production and with bird welfare in mind was to appeal to Defra and the APHA to have our poultry houses considered separate to our arable land. With this derogation we would be able to apply for a movement licence under the 10km SZ restrictions as our processor had set the wheels in motion to get their Level 1 designation with the Food Standards Agency.

Preparing our case

I spent the following two days gathering evidence for Defra’s legal team to consider our request. We were asked to confirm the following:

  • That the poultry unit and its curtilage was self-contained and separate to the arable land in the CPH holding (by annotating a Google Earth satellite map to show the location of the poultry buildings in relation to the arable land in the PZ).
  • No poultry are kept, or have been kept since the zone was declared, at other parts of the registered CPH holding in the PZ (certified by our veterinary surgeon).
  • No bedding, feed, other material and equipment (weighbridge) used for the poultry business at our location was stored on other parts of the CPH holding which are located in the PZ.
  • Confirmation of how poultry muck, litter, manure, bedding, slurry etc is disposed of and whether this is spread on land within the CPH holding.
  • Management (including all staff) and supplies have no contact with poultry in the PZ.

Poultry litter stored on-site

We had an advantage of demonstrating that our poultry litter is stored on-site and burnt through our APHA approved litter combustion plant which provides the heat for the next batch of chicks.

Visit from APHA

We then had a scheduled visit from an APHA vet on the Wednesday who was required to inspect our birds by walking through all six sheds (in full PPE) checking for any signs of avian influenza, before conducting a sit-down interview where we went through farm maps and details of how we run the poultry unit – most notably checking visitor records and disinfectant dilution rates of foot dips. I was told to expect a report back the following day about the visit.

Once the information had all been reviewed, the APHA considered our poultry unit to be in the SZ which meant the birds could go to a Level 1 designated processor (by which point our processor had been granted Level 1 designation by the Food Standards Agency).

We were now getting somewhere.

Moving the birds

The process so far had taken several days which caused further issues such as having to arrange emergency feed deliveries and disruption to our processor’s catch plans. We were lucky that the birds were slightly lower stocked due to the impact of coronavirus on the wholesale chicken market so delaying depletion by a few days did not negatively impact welfare or breach stocking density limits. It could have been far worse if we were approaching first thin or the birds had been larger.

Not out of the woods

But we were not out of the woods yet. We still had to apply for our movement licences to get the birds to the processor.

We had to complete a new movement license application and write on each day’s depletions with the number of birds being transported and where they were going.

After emailing this form we would consequently receive another form from an APHA veterinary adviser signing off this request, but still requiring our own vet to visit the farm and check the birds were clear of any clinical signs of disease. The vet had to visit the farm within 24hrs of the birds leaving each day, each time signing the movement license to activate it.

A copy of the completed form was returned to the APHA, whilst the original had to accompany the first load of chickens to the processor the following day – the Official Veterinarian (OV) at the processing plant had to check and sign the form before the birds could be unloaded. This then had to be repeated for each day’s depletions – for us this meant going through this process on four successive days as we depleted the birds.

Lessons learnt

No matter how well prepared you think you are, it is always going to be stressful if your farm is caught up in an Avian Influenza Disease Control Zone. That said, there are a few things I wish we had done beforehand that would have saved some of the time and stress:

  • Confirm the designation status with our processor in advance and ensure it is at the appropriate level, so the information is ready to apply for licences immediately – licence requests can take time to assess.
  • Map out the farm clearly on Google Earth or something similar to show which parts of the farm are associated with poultry activities and which are not.
  • Prepare a contingency plan – options are always going to be limited but the APHA and Defra expect everyone to have them in place if licences are not granted in time. Involve your processor or packer, as well as your vet and get some plans in place in ‘peacetime’.
  • Register a separate CPH for your poultry unit. This may not be possible for everyone to do but it is something we have since managed to achieve, which should help with any restrictions which may be implemented in association with any further outbreaks of notifiable disease.
  • Familiarise yourself with the restrictions Defra typically introduce in Disease Control Zones. The NFU have summarised them on the What to do if you are in a Restricted, Protection or Surveillance Zone.

Preparation is key

My advice would be to use the lessons learnt above to prepare a procedure for your business in case of a local avian influenza outbreak, it will help give you structure whilst preventing the potential panic and stress of not knowing how to respond to the situation. Outbreaks could happen anywhere from one mile down the road or 100 miles away. It is essential that all employees are familiar with their roles and responsibilities if you must put a plan into action.

Hopefully, you will never need it but having a plan in place could make all the difference to your poultry business and just as importantly to your own mental health.

You can also read about Daniel’s experiences of being caught up in AI disease control zones in November 2021 here.

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