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Farmers could go out business due to rise of bird flu, warns union

By Rachel Martin

Northern Ireland could be in danger of losing its free-range egg industry within a month if avian influenza, also known as bird flu, continues to spread, an industry body has warned.

Farmers are forced to keep all flocks of hens indoors to stop the virus from spreading - but the EU has refused to grant any extension to the 12-week maximum that it will allow free-range birds to be kept inside.

As a result, hundreds of thousands of eggs will be stripped of their free-range status and will have to be relabelled if the restrictions aren't ended in the next few weeks.

The British Free Range Egg Producers Association says downgrading eggs from free-range to barn will cost farmers around 20p on every dozen eggs.

UK farming unions say there is a "very real prospect" that producers could go out of business unless an extension is agreed.

Co Down poultry farmer Philip Clements Jnr (31) said the situation raises problems regardless of whether the hens are allowed outside again.

He was hopeful the restrictions would be lifted by March 16, but said that there was still a risk in having large numbers of hens outside.

He said: "They could tell everyone to let their hens out again and it would take one case to wipe out a whole flock. There are many people with five or six hens here which aren't registered and therefore they're not getting the letters telling them to keep them inside. The worry is that the virus could spread through these smaller flocks."

Philip runs his poultry farm in Carrowdore alongside his father Philip Clements Snr.

The family has been producing, packing and distributing eggs for more than 40 years and supplies Hastings Group through their brand Clements Eggs.

The pair look after around 8,000 free-range hens but he also keeps some other hens in barns.

He said: "They're more nervous than normal - usually I would let them out at around seven or eight every morning, but now I've got to keep them inside all the time.

"We've been keeping the lights down to help them settle but I can tell they're not happy, it has upset their routines whereas the hens kept in the barn all the time have seen no difference.

"In the event that the restrictions aren't lifted we are hoping to have something along the lines of: 'These eggs are produced by hens that have been kept indoors for their own good,' put on the packaging so that consumers are made aware that while the hens are kept indoors, it's because we have to," he added.

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