Could avian flu spell end free range eggs?

A A A

Peter Barton is as uneasy as the rest of them. The organic poultry farmer has 50,000 hens scuttling around his fields in East Sussex. He, like many farmers, thought if anyone was going to be hit by bird flu, it would be someone like him. "We are obviously very concerned about what has happened, but it's not a total surprise," he says. "We've been expecting this for the last two or three years. However, I am very surprised how it turned up on an intensive farm rather than on one of ours. They are able to have much higher biosecurity. Our birds just run around and come into close contact with all things wild and natural. It flies in the face of logic. Something has gone wrong somewhere."

Thankfully Grassington Farm near Lewes, which produces organic chicken eggs and pullets, is a long way from the turkey farm in Holton, Suffolk, where Britain's first case of the H5N1 strain of bird flu broke out last week, killing 2,600 turkeys and leading to the slaughter of 159,000 more. But there are about 62 free-range or organic farms in the controlled zone around Holton. Defra requires farmers to house their poultry or isolate them from wild birds, by, for example, netting them, and feeding them and watering them indoors where possible. Organic and free-range farmers throughout the country are being urged to maintain high levels of biosecurity and develop plans to enable them to bring their birds inside if required.

"A high standard of biosecurity, separation of poultry from wild birds and careful surveillance for signs of disease remain the most effective means of protection," says a Defra spokesman. "We do not intend to permit the vaccination of birds as an immediate disease control response."

Peter Barton has the facilities to keep his birds inside, not that he wants to. "To protect them we would have to [bring them inside] if Defra advised us to," he says. "At the moment they haven't, but that could change soon. We have to protect the welfare of the birds, and our staff. We all live and work on the farm, so we live cheek-by-jowl with our birds."

The Food Standards Agency has already received calls from worried members of the public concerned about the safety of eating poultry. Barton believes that the current scare might work in the favour of organic farmers. "If anything, in situations like this the consumer tends to move towards extensive systems rather than intensive systems. [Scares] can be a bit of good news for the smaller farmer."

Robin Maynard, campaigns director for the Soil Association, is relieved that the outbreak wasn't at an organic or free-range farm. He claims that some in the intensive poultry industry had predicted that such farmers would be responsible for bringing bird flu into Britain.

"We are very keen that the public still supports organic and free-range. It's one of the success stories in farming," he says. "People are surprised to learn that 8,000 turkeys were kept in one shed and they've had to slaughter 160,000 overnight. That is why turkey is so cheap. But the turkeys live much shorter lives, they don't get fed the type of food that organic and free-range birds get and they are kept in pretty inhumane conditions. That's why organic and free-range turkey costs more, tastes a lot better and you can eat it with a clear conscience. What we don't want to see is the industry wiped out by unfortunate incidents such as this."

He claims there is "interesting evidence" to suggest that organic and free-range poultry may have naturally stronger immune systems than those reared intensively. "The whole principal of organic farming is built on positive health and naturally immune livestock poultry. One of the examples that supports this is the fact that there was an outbreak of a different strain of bird flu, H7, in Norfolk last year. It was identified in an intensive indoor broiler flock and there was a high mortality rate. About 15 days later a vet from a nearby free-range unit rang up and said he thought they may have had it first. There had been a much lower mortality rate. Defra vets confirmed it was H7 and that it had broken out there first. But because the birds weren't packed so closely together and were going outdoors they hadn't died off so much or spread the disease so quickly."

The farm animal welfare organisation Compassion In World Farming (CIWF) has no qualms in blaming factory farming for what it calls "the myth" that wild birds have caused the current bird-flu crisis. "Factory farming was always bound to cause a disease backlash by pushing nature way beyond its limits," says CIWF's chief executive, Philip Lymbery. "Keeping massive numbers of poultry on intensive farms worldwide is now coming back to bite us in the form of avian influenza."

Intensively farmed poultry is often kept in overcrowded conditions that provide an ideal breeding ground for disease, the charity claims. The chronic stress to which the birds are subjected could also weaken their immune systems.

However, the British Poultry Council denies that factory farming is to blame. "I think that would be pure speculation," says a spokesman. "The most predictable way of avian influenza spreading remains via wild birds, and I don't think the question of intensive farming is something that should be considered in the spread of bird flu."

Neither does the NFU agree with Philip Lymbery. Maria Ball, the union's chief poultry adviser, says: "I don't know where the science is in his statement and I would not support that view at all." Blaming one part of the industry is "irresponsible", she adds. "Avian influenza is a disease that affects all poultry. It doesn't recognise any differences between free-range, organic or conventional types of production. The virus will freely attack any sort of poultry, however it is kept. When we had low-pathogenic avian influenza back in the spring that occurred on two free-range farms and then went into a broiler breeder unit and we understood it was by fox carriage."

Peter Barton, meanwhile, refuses to worry about the future. "Our birds are pretty robust," he says. "That doesn't mean that they won't get the disease if it becomes endemic. At the moment it just seems to be a breakdown somewhere along the line. What we would be concerned about is if large numbers of wild birds were found to be dead or dying, which would indicate that the disease has spread into the country. There is no evidence of that at the moment, thank goodness."

What is free-range?

* To qualify as free-range, the birds must have access to at least an acre of land for every 400 birds.

* To be certified organic, the birds must be free-range and fed on a diet produced without artificial fertilisers and pesticides. The use of medicines is restricted and flock sizes are smaller.

* In factory farms, birds are fed antibiotics to help prevent disease spreading.

* Free-range flocks are more vulnerable to exposure to avian flu through contact with wild birds. But free-range farmers argue that intensive farming helps to spread disease and that their birds have a stronger immune system and more resistance to infection.

Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker