Free-range egg and poultry farmers will not lose their status under the compulsory housing order brought in for all birds, under avian influenza (bird flu) related restrictions, unless they continue for a certain number of weeks.

Due to the increased risk of bird flu the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) announced a compulsory confinement order for all birds in the country, which came into effect on Monday (November 7).

The department has confirmed to Agriland that if hens’ access to open-air runs is restricted to protect public or animal health, their eggs can still be marketed as free-range, as long as the confinement period continues for no more than 16 weeks.

This is outlined under European Commission (EC) guidelines, that set out marketing standards for eggs regulations, which were introduced in 2008.

Similar criteria applies to poultry meat, however, the time period of restricted outdoor access is slightly shorter at 12 weeks, as outlined under EC regulations relating to marketing standards for poultry meat.

The department also stated that the marketing and labelling of eggs and poultry meat as free range is ultimately determined on a flock by flock basis.

“The date of placing birds in a house will determine the free range status of the flock and will determine whether the term  can continue to be used when access to open-air runs is restricted in order to protect public or animal health,” it added.

Bird flu restrictions and organic eggs and poultry

Separate rules apply to egg and poultry producers operating under an organic status according to the department.

It has outlined that farmers can continue to classify and sell their products as organic under housing restrictions if select steps are taken to provide for the ethological needs of the birds.

In relation to poultry, these needs refer to the facilitation of natural behaviours while housed, such as pecking, foraging and scratching.

These must be provided for by ensuring the birds have “permanent access to sufficient quantities of roughage and suitable material”, according to EU Regulation 848, introduced in 2018.

“Sufficient roughage” is oultined as one standard, small square-bale of straw per 100 birds, which should be suspended for the birds to rummage and peck at.

This will keep housed birds occupied and discourage behaviours such as pecking at companions or, in the case of laying hens, the breaking and eating of their eggs.

The regulation also states that loose straw or hay of equivalent quantities may be used instead, but in every case, sufficient roughage and other material must be provided to facilitate natural behaviour amongst the birds.

“Behaviour should be monitored daily to ensure that the birds are not distressed while the housing restriction continues, and to ensure that adequate levels of roughage are maintained,” the DAFM concluded.

Meanwhile, the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) poultry chair Nigel Sweetnam has said “it is vitally important that flock owners continue to be extremely vigilant” as bad weather continues to increase the risk of transmisison.

He said that further, heavy rainfall could bring wild birds closer to captive flocks.

“The weather may not help, we’ve already seen this in Waterford where there were 100 wild ducks that located in a temporary pond close to commercial flocks.

“It is not cold enough for some birds to migrate and these are all factors that we have to continue to be vigilant about. There have been changes in the pattern of migrating birds here and that is another issue to be aware of,” he concluded.