Dealer at centre of virus fears is convicted fraudster

Brett Hammond, 43, the director of Pegasus Birds, has been labelled "Mr Bird Flu" after the discovery of a dead parrot in Essex. Mr Hammond runs one of 83 official quarantine centres in the UK.

It is understood that the parrot infected with the H5N1 virus had been imported from Surinam. It was then kept with birds imported from Taiwan.

Mr Hammond refused to answer questions about the parrot yesterday. The Department of Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said it would not reveal where the bird was discovered for "bio-security reasons".

Staff at Mr Hammond's Pegasus Birds retail outlet said the parrot had died "miles away" from the shop. One man, who described himself as a "senior manager" at Pegasus, said allegations made about Mr Hammond were "despicable". He said reports of the incident have been "ignorant and badly researched".

A Defra spokesman said licensed vets assessed suitable candidates to run the quarantine centres based on "animal welfare considerations".

Mr Hammond admitted fraud offences in 1997. He was sentenced to 18 months in jail, reduced to a year on appeal. Customs and Excise investigators claim that he had failed to pay £658,000 in connection with more than 160 trips to Belgium and Holland to buy birds. Mr Hammond claimed the figure was much less and is still appealing at a tribunal.

Pegasus Birds has been criticised by animal rights groups such as Animal Aid, which drew attention to the condition of birds Pegasus offered at a national sale.

Mr Hammond was also questioned during a 1992 investigation by the television reporter Roger Cook into the alleged illegal import of birds from Indonesia. He denied the claims.

Elaine Toland, the director of the Animal Protection Agency, said her charity is calling for a ban on live bird markets in the wake of concerns over bird flu.

She said: "The major concern with Pegasus is the size of the company and the fact that it imports such a large number of wild birds. We believe the trade poses a greater risk than migratory birds. Some areas of the trade are still operated illegally and do not quarantine their birds."

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