More than two million birds are estimated to have died or been culled at poultry farms across the country in recent months, with the seasonal turkey population particularly badly hit.
Farmers told The Independent officials were “losing the battle” to control the disease, as they called on Rishi Sunak’s government to fast-track a bird flu vaccine to stop more huge losses next year.
Mark Gorton, managing director of Traditional Norfolk Poultry, said he had lost close to 100,000 turkeys since September – around 10 per cent of his stock – predicting that it would become difficult to find a turkey on the supermarket shelves this Christmas.
“It’s been unbelievably bad,” he said. “It’s off the scale – worse than anything we’ve seen before. There will be a big impact on the Christmas market. It’s going to be quite bad. If it carries on the way it is, we’re going to be seeing severe shortages.”
Mr Gorton said officials from the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) could not get out fast enough to control the spread of the disease, which has become prevalent in the winter months only in recent years.
“The APHA can’t keep up with the spread,” he said – criticising the APHA and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) for failing to provide information on how to open up parts of the farm after culls. “It’s very frustrating.”
Paul Kelly, managing director of Kelly Turkeys – a member of the British Poultry Council – estimated that 750,000 turkeys were among the two million birds culled on poultry farms in recent months.
“It’s hit us earlier than ever, so things are going to get worse before Christmas. It’s a dire situation for the poultry industry. This is Covid in the poultry world,” Mr Kelly told The Independent.
He said there would be a major shortage of both free-range turkeys and duck in the run-up to Christmas. Some farms are now culling healthy turkeys and putting them in deep freeze for sale later – meaning slightly small birds this Christmas.
In previous years, the avian influenza (HPAI) virus has mostly died out during the summer and early autumn months, but has persisted all year round in 2022. There have been outbreaks at dozens of sites across the UK since the start of September – with East Anglia the worst-hit region.
The UK produces more than 11 million turkeys every year, and just under two thirds are consumed during the Christmas period. James Mottershead, chairman of the National Farmers Union (NFU)’s poultry board, has warned of “real supply chain issues in the run-up to Christmas time”.
The poultry sector is urging the government to fast-track approval for avian flu vaccines to prevent huge amounts of livestock being wiped out again in 2023.
Earlier this month, the UK’s chief veterinary officer, Christine Middlemiss, said bird flu vaccines used in other countries were “not hugely effective” and were unlikely to offer an immediate solution.
Mr Gorton said: “There are vaccines out there so it’s really frustration that the policymakers can’t push it through. If things carry on as they are, there won’t be much poultry grown in the UK – we’ll have to import from overseas.”
Mr Kelly added: “It’s endemic in the wild bird population – we’re not winning the battle, we’ve probably lost the war, so they have to fast-track a vaccine. The government has to allow us to vaccinate.”
Farmers have also called for more bird flu compensation from the government. At the moment, businesses are given compensation only for birds culled by the APHA – but hundreds of thousands of birds have died or have been culled by farmers before officials can reach their farms.
Mr Kelly: “In the absence of a fair compensation scheme, without a vaccine, I don’t think Christmas poultry producers will be producing poultry next year. It will mean shrinking the business back massively.”
On Friday, Defra announced that rules would be changed so that farmers who breed turkeys, geese or duck can slaughter their flocks early and freeze these products, which can then be defrosted and sold between 28 November and 31 December.
Newly appointed farming minister Mark Spencer said: “We very much appreciate the continued cooperation from the sector as we battle this insidious disease and will continue to keep the situation under close review.”
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