Meanwhile in the Countryside … Memories of Avian Flu

Ed: With cases of Bird Flu reported on a turkey farm in Northallerton and now in the West England area, our countryside writer recalls her blog of the 2016 outbreak in Gloucestershire.

Chickens in Lockdown in 2016 – Source: Author

It’s recently been announced that two swans have died at Slimbridge from Avian Flu (thankfully not a very virulent strain) and a local protection zone has been imposed.  There’s no national lockdown on chickens yet, but my mind goes back to 2016 when things were rather different and I had a small flock of free-range hens.  Here’s a blog-post I wrote at the time:

“I wake up this morning to hear the newsreader tell me that Defra, the government department covering all things farming and environmental, has imposed WITH IMMEDIATE EFFECT, a nationwide prevention zone against Avian Flu.  To translate: some migratory birds such as geese and swans have been found dead on the near continent and autopsy has revealed a virulent strain of that disease. There’s a risk that these wild birds could bring it over here and infect poultry flocks so now ALL poultry keepers have to keep their birds indoors for 30 days as a precaution.  That’s the prevention zone.  Funny title but there we are.

Here’s something else that’s funny:  I’ve got 20 or so free-range birds who are used to the outdoor life where they forage happily for bugs and beetles.  I’ve got to explain to them that life is gonna be different for a while, and make that happen.  Whatever I was going to do today, I’m not.

Flock number one is relatively easy as they live in a house with a large integral run where they have “plenty” of space.  All I have to do is let them out into said run.  However, they strongly disagree that this is an OK idea and sit there whingeing all day, providing a mournful soundtrack to everything I do in office and workroom.  Occasionally Grimaldi the cockerel expresses his displeasure more loudly.  MUCH more loudly.

Flock number two is more of a problem as their house does not have a run attached, they just pour out joyfully every morning to scamper off for a day’s foraging in the orchard.  What to do?

We contemplate various rickety, Heath-Robinson constructions and dismiss them all as being insecure, unstable and hazardous to both us and the chickens.  A stable is the answer and luckily we have a nice large one that we can clear for the birds, but how to get them there?

It’s only fifty yards from their normal home range but chickens can be quite territorial and wary of going outside a known area in case there are gremlins.  Of course this doesn’t apply if THEY decide to go exploring, but at the behest of a human?  No Thanks!  Also they don’t “herd”, they scatter so any attempt to push them gently forwards simply leads to good exercise for all as they flap and you chase.  Not worth it.

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They are easiest to catch when tucked up for the night as they are sleepy and in a confined space but in what do you put ten chickens for transport once caught?  A sack? Traditional but questionable from a welfare point of view.  A lot of boxes?  Haven’t got that many.  One under each arm and five trips?  High chance of losing one or more.

In a flash of genius we decide to balance the whole coop on a large trolley that we’ve previously used to move garden sheds (as you do).  We can trundle it, hens and all, to its new position once the hens have settled down for the night.  What could possibly go wrong?

Well.  For starters, this all has to be done in the pitch black of a December night, because that’s when the chickens are abed.  Second, it turns out that we have always opted to move sheds in summer, when the ground is firm, and not in a mild, damp winter when it isn’t.  Third, the addition of ten healthy, well-fed birds adds quite a bit to the weight, making it altogether rather heavier than perhaps we anticipated.

The combined effect is rather like trying the push a laden shopping trolley, with steering issues, across a ploughed field.  Only not so easy.  The trolley veers at random, alternately runs away downhill or bogs to a standstill on some invisible obstruction.  Choice words are uttered, curses thrown and lively discussions take place as to what we mean by left and right.  The poor birds scrabble and squawk inside the coop, much as you would if someone picked your house up and shook it.  Think “The Borrowers”, think “Alice in Wonderland”.

Finally we get to the stable yard and all our troubles are over.  Except that the coop we blithely assumed would go through the door doesn’t, by about an inch.  So near and yet so far, we now have a coopful of very rattled chickens that have to be transferred safely without any of them departing in panic to the great outdoors where a fox will pick them off before bird flu has a chance.  Smallholders are nothing if not resourceful and a cold, dark night with supper still an hour away and counting does focus the mind wonderfully. Using those handy bits and pieces that always make the yard look like it could do with a good tidy, we construct a chicken-funnel and feed the birds through it one by one into the safety of the stable.  Coop installed, we leave them with a comfy bed, food and water while we go in and seek solace in the demon drink.

So now we are compliant with Defra’s directive and all I have to do is keep the birds happy for the next 29 days.  Bored chickens can be quite nasty and start bullying and picking on one another with gory results.  I’m now racking my brains for toys and games to keep the birds busy and happy over Christmas.  Stockings and crackers come to mind but what do you give the chicken who has everything except its accustomed freedom?  All suggestions gratefully received.”

In fact the lockdown was extended, as we know lockdowns often are, and in the end the chickens were indoors for a full three months.  But that’s another story.

Any readers who have chickens, keep an eye on the news or register with Defra for information.  If the protection zone is extended, it will apply to all, including backyard or pet chickens.  Have a think now about how you might keep them under cover.