A number of local egg producers have decided to allow their hens to roam free from Friday in order to retain their free range status, while others believe the risk of avian influenza (bird flu) is still too high.

Hens across the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland have been indoors since December 23 because bird flu has been detected in a number of wild ducks and swans in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic.

The Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) has announced that a new Avian Influenza Prevention Zone will be in place from March 17 and will give poultry keepers in Northern Ireland the option of letting their birds outside, “subject to keepers maintaining the highest possible levels of biosecurity.”

A slight easing of restrictions is also underway in Britain but, in the Republic, poultry keepers have been ordered to keep their birds indoors and label their eggs as ‘barn eggs – laid by hens temporarily housed for their welfare’.

EU labelling rules mean that if a bird has been housed for more than 12 weeks it can no longer be called free range. 

Northern Ireland’s Chief Veterinary Officer Robert Huey stated: “The risk of infection from wild birds will not decrease in the coming weeks. The changes to the new Prevention Zone are proportionate and place the onus on the keeper to select the best option for their circumstances to protect their birds.

“Poultry keepers will have the option to voluntarily house their birds, and for many this will continue to be the most practical way to comply with the requirements of the zone and minimise the risk of infection, but it will have implications for labelling their produce as free range.”

He said keepers must have “strict biosecurity measures” in place.

Joe Maguire owns Sydare eggs outside Ballinamallard which has 16,000 birds and produces five million eggs each year. He told The Impartial Reporter: “We intend to let the hens out on Friday. We will let them out for six hours a day and monitor the situation.” He added: “We market as free range and we want our customers, who pay a premium price, to get a premium product. If the department is allowing us to let them out then we will.”

He continued: “Bird flu hasn’t been in a commercial flock or on an egg production site, it’s only been found in wild birds. We have kept our birds inside where they have everything they need and are very comfortable but we feel that, when the ban is being lifted, we want our free range birds to be outside.”

Mr. Maguire stressed “we are taking our biosecurity very seriously,” adding: “No-one is allowed in the units except ourselves, we are disinfecting vehicles and have foot dips. If we had a pond or a lake beside our range we might have thought differently.”

The Ulster Farmer’s Union poultry chairman Tom Forgrave has said: “I would encourage producers to … weigh up the possible risks of allowing birds outside even with additional biosecurity measures.” In response, Mr. Maguire said: “How long do we keep them in? The egg industry is a big industry in Northern Ireland and we want to maintain that.”

Andrew Kerr, owner of Clogher Valley Eggs and poultry, who keeps around 2,000 birds and supplies a number of local shops, will also let his hens out on Friday. 
“I’ve had my birds in since December so I will be letting them out on Friday. Birds will flourish when they are outdoors, indoors is un-natural for them,” he said.
Outlining his biosecurity measures, Mr. Kerr said: “I have people coming to collect poultry so I have foot dips. The main issue is to minimise the possibility of interaction with wild water fowl so my birds are fed and watered indoors.”

Meanwhile, a large scale Fermanagh free range egg producer, who does not wish to be named, has decided to keep its 35,000 birds inside. They made their decision yesterday (Wednesday), stating: “We are going to leave them in because the risk is still the same as it was when they were first closed in and after speaking to other packers, producers and DAERA, we know it’s the right thing to do. Fermanagh, with its many lakes would be considered as a high risk area.

“Our eggs will be stickered to say they are kept in barns for their welfare and hopefully after April 30 it will be safe to let them out, but the department may extend it beyond this time if they think we are still at risk.”

Outlining how the bird flu prevention zones have affected their business over the past three months, they said: “Keeping the birds in goes against who we are and what we stand for, but at the same time it is better to be safe than sorry. If the avian influenza got into our flock they would all have to be put down and that would be devastating for both the birds and our business.”

The current Avian Influenza Prevention Zone will continue until at least April 30. The Balmoral Show, which takes place in May, has cancelled its poultry section and the organisers of Fermanagh County Show, which takes place in August, are hoping that the situation will change by mid-June when they finalise their classes.  The theme of this year’s children’s art competition is ‘poultry’ and a show spokeswoman quipped: “If things do not improve, that may be the only poultry at the show.”