Leading article: Move British poultry inside before the virus arrives

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The Government, in the person of Ben Bradshaw, junior Environment minister, still maintains that bird flu may not strike Britain. That claim is starting to look untenable. Few experts now doubt that the virus is on its way, concealed in the flocks of ducks, geese, swans and waders now preparing to leave their winter grounds on the Continent for nesting sites in Britain. It is advancing northwards and westwards like a dark cloud, as the discovery of a dead duck infected with the deadly H5N1 strain, 400 miles from Britain's south coast, near Lyons, in France, has shown.

The trajectory is unmistakable - from South-east Asia in 2003 to Turkey, where it was confirmed last October, then to the Balkans and to Germany, Slovenia and Italy, and from there to France last week. Only a miracle will stop infected wild birds crossing the English Channel, and government calls for increased "vigilance" among British poultry farmers will surely not be enough to keep their birds safe from contact with the infected spring migrants.

But the Government is on the horns of a dilemma. In its determination to sound both busy and aware of worst-case scenarios, it has gone along with health experts' talk of a pandemic that may kill tens of millions of people worldwide - all predicated on the hypothetical mutation of the virus into a new strain that spreads from human to human. Discussion of the dizzying measures that would be needed to tackle a virus that has not yet even occurred, including the closure of schools and airports, has seized the public imagination. At the same time, it has diverted attention from a more mundane but immediate crisis about to descend on British agriculture.

Long before a horror-movie style mutation of the virus into a human killer, the present virus is likely to deal our poultry industry, especially organic farmers, a serious blow. The mass migration of birds from the Continent will start in weeks. Yet the Government has not publicised its timetable for action for British free-range ducks and chickens. Is it planning to order British farmers to bring all their birds indoors only after the first case of bird flu is proven, or not even then?

Authoritative virologists are urging us to bite the bullet now and get the birds indoors without delay. Instead, the Government's veterinary advisers, seemingly loath to upset the poultry farmers, concur with them that while the risk from migrating birds has increased, existing surveillance precautions are sufficient.

One fears the real reason for the Government's hesitation is that there are now about 30 million free-range birds, and that organic or free-range poultry is more popular than ever, benefiting from a revulsion against battery farming on the grounds of ethics and of taste.

The pressure behind this shift has been fears for health, after the last devastating outbreak in British agriculture in 2001 with foot-and-mouth disease convinced many that we were paying too high a price for the adoption of "unnatural" farming methods. How ironic, therefore, that many now fear they may be at risk from the supposedly more healthy alternative of free-range or organically reared meat, in spite of the fact that properly cooked chicken is perfectly safe.

It is in no one's interest to whip up hysteria about organic poultry or make people afraid of wildfowl in general. But at a time when almost all our neighbours have already ordered poultry-keepers to take their birds indoors, it is odd that we are clinging to the hope that the virus may not get here. Of course it is going to reach Britain and have an impact on farming. The way to defuse panic would be to help us to adjust to that probability, step by step. And a first step would be to get the birds indoors, however much this upsets the farmers.

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