Opinion

Why are Northern Ireland’s free-range poultry flocks still locked up?

I am not a veterinary surgeon but I feel I have the right to query why Northern Ireland remains in Avian Influenza (AI) lock-down mode whilst the previously-introduced disease control measures have been relaxed completely south of the border and in Scotland.

Last Friday saw Northern Ireland’s Chief Veterinary Officer Robert Huey roll over the AI restrictions, introduced four months ago, which prevent poultry flocks from having any access to the outdoors.

This was two days after his counterpart in the Republic of Ireland repealed all of the AI control measures that had been put in place up to that point. So why should there be this difference in approach, given that diseases like Bird Flu do not respect geographical borders?

For most broiler chicken and egg producers, the AI controls make very little practical difference; they keep their birds in all of the time. But it is a big issue for free-range egg and poultry-meat producers.

My understanding is that after 12 weeks of total confinement, free-range hens lose this coveted status. I am not sure if the same time-frame operates, where free-range broilers are concerned.

It was interesting to note that the press release accompanying the decision made in Dublin made particular reference to the plight of free-range poultry farmers, in the wake of the most recent AI scare. It specifically points out that the relaxation in the AI control measures will allow free-range flocks to regain their status for the purposes of marketing free-range eggs and poultry-meat.

In total contrast, Robert Huey’s most recent press statement makes no reference at all to the continuing challenges that face free-range poultry farmers in Northern Ireland. No doubt, Northern Ireland’s Chief Veterinary Officer has sound reasons for taking last Friday’s decision.

But I was genuinely surprised at the response issued by the Ulster Farmers’ Union, which seemed to totally acquiesce with the views expressed by Huey without flagging up the challenge this will pose for its free-range poultry producer members.

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