Leading article: Move British poultry inside before the virus arrives

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£22000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Thame i...

Graduate Project Manager

£25000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsf...

PPA Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Pr...

Teaching Assistant Cornwall

£45 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Plymouth: TEACHING ASSISTANTS REQUIRED F...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: out of time, polling and immigration and old words

John Rentoul
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past