The UK is experiencing its largest ever outbreak of avian flu, Environment Secretary George Eustice has warned.
Thousands of farming birds have been culled across the country and an Avian Influenza Prevention Zone was declared 3 November before being extended on 29 November, with the added requirement all captive birds had to be kept indoors, amid concerns that wild birds migrating from mainland Europe during the winter are carrying the disease.
There are 40 infected premises in the UK, 33 in England, with around half a million birds culled so far, according to UK chief veterinary officer Christine Middlemiss, who warned there is a “phenomenal level” of bird flu, which has “huge human, animal and trade implications”.
The risk to human health from the bird flu remains very low, according to public health advice, and there is a low food safety risk.
Speaking in the House of Commons on Wednesday, George Eustice said: “I have to say this year we are now seeing the largest ever outbreak in the UK of avian influenza with 36 confirmed cases.
“We have put in place an avian influenza prevention zone that came into force on 3 November in England and 17 November in Northern Ireland, and an additional housing order was introduced on 29 November.”
Conservative MP Scott Benton told MPs that 15 swans died last month following an outbreak in Blackpool’s Stanley Park.
Dr Middlemiss said the disease is spreading through migratory birds flying from northern Russia and eastern Europe, but further research is needed to prevent a worsening outbreak in the future.
“We can’t wait until another year and have an even bigger outbreak. So, we will be working not just with our own scientists but internationally, to understand more of what we can do about what’s behind it,” Dr Middlemiss said.
The vet warned the UK is only a few weeks into a migratory season that goes on until March.
“We are going to need to keep up these levels of heightened biosecurity for all that time,” Dr Middlemiss added.
The protection zone means that, in addition to keeping birds and poultry housed, keepers must continue to take precautions such as regularly cleaning and disinfecting clothing, equipment and vehicles and limiting access to non-essential workers and visitors.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has said the new housing measures will be kept under regular review.