Free-range poultry producers now face a stark choice – allow their flocks outside and risk infection, or keep them confined and face severe income loss and disruption to their business, Irish MEP Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan has said.

Five cases of bird flu have been confirmed in Ireland, the latest in a whooper swan in Co. Roscommon. To date, there has been no reported cases in commercial flocks.

“In an effort to minimise the spread of the disease, all poultry have been housed since before Christmas by order of the Department of Agriculture.”

This has indeed proved effective but it also has the potential to cause serious damage to the free-range sector.

“The EU regulation under which commercial producers operate stipulates that the maximum period that poultry can be confined for and still be regarded as free range is 12 weeks.

“The clocking is ticking on this; the 12-week period will elapse on March 17.”

Flanagan said that at an extraordinary meeting of the European Parliament’s Agricultural Committee this week with the European Commissioner for Agriculture, Phil Hogan, the Commissioner said that changing the 12-week period would require a Delegated Act which would take time to enact.

He undertook to look again at the legal aspects of this but was non-committal on the outcome, Flanagan said.

Also Read: 10 tips to help prevent your backyard flock from getting bird flu

The Commissioner was very clear on the issue of compensation – there will be no compensation for income loss, rebranding, or repackaging in this area, the Midlands-North-West MEP said.

On compensation for direct losses due to flock slaughtering and subsequent disinfecting of units, some level of support may be available.

“On foot of an application from a Member State setting out clearly the nature and extent of the losses, support under Article 222, Exceptional Market Measures, could be considered with the caveat that it would require State co-funding.

“Regarding long-term solutions, very little concrete support was offered. Migratory birds are being put forward as the carriers of the infection to Europe and Ireland, the hope being that if it can be contained in the short term, the pattern of migration will mean that the incidence of Infection will recede.”

Flanagan has now called on the Minister for Agriculture, Michael Creed, to be more proactive and give direction on this issue.

He said that free-range producer and organic farmers need support given the nature of their business.

“Innovative solutions that would allow poultry flocks outside access while restricting contact with wild birds, must be explored as this is likely to be a recurring issue in the coming years.”