Bird Flu: why shutting hens in is NOT the answer

There is a still a “very high risk” of avian influenza here in the UK, and we are required to keep our poultry separate from wild birds.

Although I understand and respect the reasoning for the reduced freedom of our poultry, I suspect a greater part of the high transmission is caused by the loss of habitat and biodiversity, thus causing and forcing our wild birds to occupy the same spaces as humans. The hens have been effectively shut in since the end of November, and there doesn’t seem much of a let up in the near future. This stresses the birds, and no doubt reduces their immune-boosting activities such sunning themselves and dust bathing, and also increases the potential worm burden if they are kept on the same ground for months on end.

Similarly, the wild birds are stressed due to lack of food, changes in habitat availability, eating rubbish and ingesting plastics and other toxins, and this surely makes them more susceptible to pathogens.

We listened to a webinar with Diana Beresford Kroeger back during the first lockdown where she pointed out that we are endangering ourselves by destroying the forests and wild places, as these provide a buffer so that we don’t have to integrate with species that we have not evolved alongside, and they aren’t exposed to us, either. Despite a long history of domestication, poor hygiene can result in sickness even when we commune with animals which we have grown accustomed to and shared our spaces with over hundreds of years such as dogs and horses. Now, because of the endless development and encroachment of human occupancy, we are mingling with pathogens and diseases that are on the increase. Biodiversity and wildlife buffer zones keep a balance; they aren’t optional. John Campbell (of deeply sensible advice during Covid fame) said in a recent video that he had hoped that we would be more respectful of livestock and nature since the pandemic, as it is our thoughtless behaviour and naivety towards potential zoonoses that caused the recent outbreak, and we have not changed anything at all. Covid originated in China but it could have easily sprung up in Europe or the US given the daily risks we take with factory farming and biosecurity. Yet, the instructions are to continue keeping poultry confined with no thought as to the fundamentals of this devastating and potentially cross-infecting strain of influenza.

My chickens and ducks are fortunate as I have a large covered run where they go during the day and they are split between 3 different coops so have plenty of room when they are shut in. I have 2 spare coops so I can rotate them to rest the ground. I only have 7 hens and 2 ducks, and the reason for so much excess capacity is that I sent 12 off to live with my friend who has a similar set up, and can move her covered coops on a weekly basis to work the ground. I still feed the wild birds but from window feeders on the far side of the house. Of course the Blackbirds and Robins and Dunnocks sit next to my coops waiting for any spilled layers pellets so it is completely ineffectual but DEFRA knows best…

So, I realise that changing the world view on biodiversity and habitat restoration and preservation is not as easy as asking everyone to keep their hens locked in, but I am sorry that it is just taken as a given that this is what needs to be done, without any challenge or looking beyond at the causes for the increased risk and high mortality of our wild bird population, and therefore the risk to our poultry sector. I read a horrifying statistic about the numbers of chickens killed every day – it’s over 130m apparently, and although they are a brilliant animal for small-scale farming as they are en efficient way of utilising insects, plant matter and grain in to protein with both eggs and meat, the truth is that the vast majority end up in burgers, and the subsistence farming ideals of commercial poultry farming are a far cry from reality.

I don’t eat a great deal of meat, that I do have is always always from a high welfare source, as I cannot preach all this stuff about biodiversity and then eat food produced from ecologically-dubious farms, but it is always padded out with other less expensive protein-rich ingredients such as pulses and grains, and veg of course. I don’t do this to be worthy: in fact, the cost of the meat makes me feel I am obliged to get every last scrap of nutrition, taste, and value from the meat, the juices, the bones, fat…everything.

Therefore a small chicken from our local biodynamic farm costs £12-£15. We have this roasted with vegetables and bread sauce Day 1. Day 2 is the same, only the meat is room temperature and the veg is bubble-and-squeaked and topped with the leftover bread sauce before baking. Day 3 is pasta or risotto with the bits from the pan the bird was cooked in. Then Day 4 is pulse-and-vegetable soup using the stock from the carcass. So for 2 of us, this works out at about £2.50 a portion, and I don’t begrudge that.

My elderly hens have decided to start laying again, so slightly earning their keep, although I use them to clear the ground by keeping their runs over parts of the garden earmarked for future vegetable growing so they are working on that for me, and doing a good job of eating the nettles and keeping the emerging comfrey from getting too triffid-esque. Not quite sure what happened to the first egg from my 7 year old chook but well done for effort!

The guinea pigs are getting supplementary dandelion leaves and some fresh grass as the ‘lawn’ hasn’t yet started growing. They are happy in their Eglu run though.

Do you keep backyard or small-scale poultry? Does it make you feel differently about the meat you eat yourself?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: