A mass cull of poultry in the UK is being prepared by Defra officials
in meetings with some of the main agricultural firms involved in the clean up
and disposal of hundreds of thousands of cattle, pig and sheep carcasses during
the foot and mouth epidemic.
The Guardian has learnt that experts from the Department for Environment,
Food and Rural Affairs are holding detailed discussions with contractors about
the most appropriate disposal methods should the deadly H5NI form of avian flu
reach Britain. Millions of chickens, turkeys and geese could be killed in an
UK farms house around 182m laying hens and broiler chickens and a further
5m turkeys, whose numbers will peak in the next few weeks for Christmas sales.
As it plans a cull, Defra is being forced to turn for help to firms it has spent
years fighting in disputes over outstanding bills of millions of pounds from the
foot and mouth crisis. Arthur Ruttle, director of Ruttle Plant Hire, said
officials had met his company several times in the last few weeks. The
Chorley-based firm was recently paid £13m plus interest by Defra after taking
the department to court over unpaid foot and mouth bills.
The exact scale of any planned cull is unclear but Ruttle was the fourth
biggest contractor used in the foot and mouth epidemic, providing plant and
manpower to dig disposal pits for 334 farms following the mass slaughter of
millions of cattle, sheep and pigs across the UK. "Nothing has been finalised
yet and obviously I can't go into all the details of what they are planning,"
said Mr Ruttle. "As yet they haven't decided whether to bury or burn the poultry
carcasses, but what is clear is that any cull of poultry would be easier than
cattle, the logistics are much easier because they are smaller animals."
Some leading British vets welcomed the fact that Defra is planning ahead
having learned from its mistakes in foot and mouth and bird flu outbreaks in
other countries. Bob McCracken, a poultry expert and former president of the
British Veterinary Association, said badly handled epidemics of avian flu in
America and the Netherlands had resulted in the unnecessary culling of hundreds
of thousands of turkeys and chickens.
"When an outbreak is confirmed it's rather late in the day to run around
trying to find contractors able to do the work. Hopefully what this means is
that if it is detected in domestic poultry it will be spotted early and that
should actually reduce the need for a mass cull."
But Robin Maynard, from the Soil Association, condemned any planned cull,
saying Defra should be considering stockpiling a vaccine which has been used in
Hong Kong rather than considering "medieval" practices like mass
Paul van Aarle, from the pharmaceutical firm Intervet, which produces the
Nobilis Influenza H5 vaccine said it was an alternative to mass culling. In Hong
Kong it was used in an avian influenza control programme and there have been no
new bird or human outbreaks since, he said.
News of Defra's plans came as fears grew that the lethal H5NI form of avian
flu had reached the heart of the European Union. German vets were yesterday
carrying out tests on 35 dead wild geese and ducks discovered over the last two
days in a lake in Neuwied, near Bonn, in the western state of
Rhineland-Palatinate. Experts are waiting for the outcome of tests to see
whether the birds had been carrying the deadly H5N1 bird flu strain. In France
agriculture officials ordered free range poultry farmed in more than one fifth
of the country to be kept inside yesterday over concerns that migratory wildfowl
could spread bird flu to the country.
Indonesia confirmed yesterday that a fourth person there had died of bird
flu, while China said hundreds of farm geese had died in its latest
So far 62 people in Asia have died of bird flu since late 2003 but as yet
no human to human mutations of H5NI have been recorded.
European Union vets rubber stamped a month-long ban on the importation of
wild birds into Europe yesterday. The move followed the death of a parrot in an
Essex quarantine facility which had apparently contracted H5NI from imported
Taiwanese birds which were kept in the same air space.
Defra was contacted for a comment but did not respond.
Brett Hammond, 43, is at the centre of the first H5NI virus case in
Britain. Yesterday his firm, Pegasus Birds Ltd, in Horndon, Essex, one of the
UK's biggest wild bird importers and retailers, hired extra security to patrol
its aviaries. The firm has been watched by the RSPCA for several years. In the
past Mr Hammond was jailed for not paying £650,000 of VAT. He has declined to
comment since a parrot died in quarantine at his firm.
Fears that bird flu may have entered
Britain earlier than thought: report
Bird flu may have arrived in Britain earlier
than thought, a newspaper said as it revealed the name of a tropical bird centre
where a parrot that died from the virus was quarantined.
Government vets are investigating how the bird from South
America, which is unaffected by the H5N1 strain of avian flu, contracted the
They are exploring a
possible Taiwanese link because the parrot, which arrived in Britain on
September 16, had been exposed to other birds from Taiwan while in mandatory
But Taipei has not reported
any domestic cases of the disease and it called the comments by the British
government veterinarian told The Daily Telegraph he could not rule out the
possibility that a quarantine facility in Essex, south east England, where the
birds had been held, had become contaminated by an earlier
The centre, Pegasus Birds, run by
a commercial bird importer, may have looked after an earlier batch of birds that
could have been carrying a "subclinical" avian flu infection, the newspaper
This means one or more of the birds
would appear free of disease but because of the stress of being held in
quarantine they could have excreted the virus.
Quarantine centres are typically cleaned after each import but the virus
may have become airborne and infected the next installment of birds from Taiwan
and South America, the newspaper said.
"That is a possibility. All that is being investigated," the
veterinarian, whose name was not given, was quoted by The Daily Telegraph as
The newspaper reported that the
Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the government
ministry overseeing the avian flu scare, was checking a consignment of birds
that arrived "some time ago" as part of its efforts to trace the origin of the
"We are looking at what went
into the quarantine before," the veterinarian said. "We are carefully checking
out facts and cross-checking them. It is quite complicated because we are being
faced with some conflicting reports."
government veterinarian added, however, that there was no evidence so-far to
suggest Britain's quarantine system had failed.
The Sun tabloid also named Pegasus Birds, owned by long-time bird
importer Brett Hammond, as the centre at the heart of Britain's bird flu
But a DEFRA spokesman declined to
confirm the reports.
"As a matter of
course we always discourage people from approaching any disease site and will
therefore not be naming the facility," he said.
"It is not our practice to release personal information of the
"Investigations continue into the
circumstances surrounding the deaths of these birds. Until it is completed we
are not in a position to comment."
British veterinary officials announced late Sunday that the parrot
imported from Surinam had tested positive for H5N1, the strain of bird flu which
has killed more than 60 people in Asia since