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The Omlet Blog

What are the New Bird Flu Rules for Chicken Keepers, and Which Wild Birds Spread the Disease?

Bird flu, also known as avian influenza, is back in the headlines, and new restrictions have been imposed on chicken keepers. In these circumstances, it is natural to ask whether wild birds present a major risk.

Wild birds are not the main source of the spread of the disease, however, even though they can act as reservoirs for the virus. It is human commercial activities associated with poultry farming that are the major cause of the bird flu’s spread across the world. If you are keeping just a few chickens, most of the risks can be avoided by simple hygiene and protective housing measures.

Avian influenza (bird flu)

As its name suggest, the avian flu virus is a form of influenza (flu) biologically adapted to bird hosts. Avian influenza is not a virus specific to chickens and poultry, and in theory any bird, wild or domestic, can be infected. The disease is always been at large somewhere in the world, and the safety risk for UK wild birds and bird keepers is currently quite high.

Bird flu – good news and bad news

In theory, any species of wild bird can catch the flu. Waterfowl such as geese, swans and ducks are thought to be major carriers of the disease, sometimes displaying no symptoms themselves. Chickens that come into contact with avian influenza are likely to catch it.

But let’s look at the good news first. The risk to human health from wild bird diseases, including avian influenza, are extremely low. In 99.9% of cases, humans affected by the highly virulent H5N1 strain of the bird flu have caught it from intensively reared poultry. The disease is not easily transmitted from human to human, and there have been no cases of avian influenza in humans in the UK, in spite of the safety risk for UK birds currently classed as high.

Similarly, chickens that are kept in runs and subject to common sense precautions are unlikely to catch the disease. Unless you live in an area suffering a major avian influenza outbreak, the visitors to your bird table are unlikely to be carriers of the disease.

Now for the bad news… If only one wild bird in a thousand is a carrier of avian influenza, that’s still one too many. Like it or not, backyard chickens are at risk. This is why new rules and new housing measures were introduced in December 2020.

What are the new rules for keeping chickens due to bird flu?

On 14 December 2020 it became a legal requirement for all poultry keepers, regardless of the size of the flock, to keep their birds indoors and follow strict biosecurity measures to combat the spread of avian influenza. A joint statement from the three Chief Veterinary Officers announced:

“Whether you keep just a few birds or thousands, from 14 December onwards you will be legally required to keep your birds indoors or take appropriate steps to keep them separate from wild birds. We have not taken this decision lightly, but it is the best way to protect your birds from this highly infectious disease.”


All poultry keepers must implement these new housing measures and precautions until further notice:

  • House all poultry and captive birds, or keep them in a run or fenced-off area outdoors
  • Cover the runs or pens with a solid top to minimise wild bird droppings entering the enclosure
  • Do not allow people other than the owners to enter the run or enclosure
  • Implement effective vermin control (rats, etc) as these animals can spread disease
  • Disinfecting clothing, footwear, equipment and other items used for cleaning the chicken coop and run, along with the feeders, drinkers, etc.
  • Use the same pair of boots when entering the run or enclosure, and do not use this footwear for any other purpose (walking, shopping, etc)
  • Make sure the chickens’ feed and water is separate from wild birds
  • Keep weed wild bird tables and feeding stations away from the chicken run 

Avian flu in wild birds

The chances of a human catching avian influenza directly from birds that visit the garden are practically nil. This is no reason to avoid basic precautions, however, especially if you keep chickens. Keeping bird feeding stations clean is important, to avoid droppings and moulds accumulating. These can impact the health of wild birds and lower their immune systems. You should always wash your hands after restocking or cleaning a feeding station, or after any situation that brings you into contact with bird droppings (feeding the ducks in the local park, for example).

Sick or dead wild birds should not be touched. In general, you do not need to report the discovery of a dead bird. However, if dead ducks, geese, swans, gulls or birds of prey should be reported, as should the discovery of five or more dead birds of any species in one place. In these situations, contact the Defra helpline (03459 335577; 0300 200 7840 in Northern Ireland).

How do I know if my chicken has bird flu? 

Chickens with avian influenza will display various symptoms. They may be less active than usual, and will lose their appetite and show signs of nervousness. Their egg production will drop, and eventually their combs and wattles will look swollen, with a blue discoloration. Other avian influenza symptoms in poultry include coughs, sneezes and diarrhoea. Unfortunately, many of these avian influenza symptoms are associated with other ailments, too, so a vet will need to make the diagnosis.

It can take 14 days for an avian influenza outbreak to spread throughout a flock. Some infected birds may exhibit no signs, even though they are still potential virus carriers. Others may sicken and die very quickly.

How to treat avian flu in chickens

You can reduce the risk of avian influenza in your poultry by following the latest guidelines issued by Defra and the government. The NFU has a very useful page containing guidance and the latest news regarding bird flu.

Vaccination of a flock at risk from the avian influenza virus is the only method of prevention. If avian influenza affects a flock, the flock has to be put down. 

This is from the website:

“All bird keepers (whether you have pet birds, commercial flocks or just a few birds in a backyard flock) must keep a close watch on them for signs of disease and maintain good biosecurity at all times. If you have any concerns about the health of your birds, seek prompt advice from your vet.”

The main takeaway messages 

  • The new rules about housing chickens apply to everyone
  • Feeding wild birds in the garden is still safe
  • Simple precautions and good cleaning regimes minimise the dangers

This entry was posted in Chickens

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