British farmers are missing out on compensation for poultry killed by bird flu because the virus has become so deadly that it kills the birds before they can be culled, MPs were told on Tuesday.
Almost half of the 1.3mn free-range turkeys produced for Christmas have been lost in a cull of more than 1.6mn birds affecting 36 per cent of farms in the UK this year, the Commons environment, food and rural affairs committee was told.
Guidance from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, states that while the government can cull animals to control the spread of diseases, farmers “generally will not receive any compensation for animals that die before they are culled”. It also says that “for avian influenza [farmers] will only receive compensation for healthy birds that are culled”.
“The compensation scheme does revolve around getting paid on fit and healthy birds when the Animal and Plant Health Agency arrive to do the cull,” said poultry farmer Paul Kelly. “When [the agency] arrive to kill, [the birds] are all dead now.”
Kelly told MPs that the loss of poultry could mean that many farms are no longer economically viable. “In many situations it is the poultry business that is the profitable bit and keeps them farming.”
He also warned that without a proper compensation scheme, many farmers in the UK would not feel confident producing turkeys for next Christmas.
Experts and farmers told the committee that the new H5N1 strain of avian flu has led to a “serious shortage” of free-range turkeys on the shelves for Christmas, which is having a “devastating” impact on farmers and local butchers.
“This season is the worst bird flu outbreak that we’ve seen, ever. The costs for industry are potentially enormous,” said Richard Griffiths, the chief executive of the British Poultry Council.
Christine Middlemiss, chief veterinary officer at the Defra, told the committee that the H5N1 strain of the avian flu virus “has turned out to be fit, very infectious. It takes a very small amount of virus to create infection in a bird”.
Avian flu has affected poultry farms across Europe. The European Food Safety Authority in October called it the “largest epidemic so far observed in Europe” after the virus reached sea breeding communities in northern Europe, leading to increases across the continent as wild birds passed the disease to domestic poultry.