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

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Read Next
SEEN graffiti Wonder Woman  

Warner Bros’ bold stance on Wonder Woman opens the door for Hollywood evolution

Matthew James
 

Errors & Omissions: moderate, iconic royals are a shoe-in for a pedantic kicking

Guy Keleny
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us