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UK farmers press EU over free-range status amid bird flu measures

UK farming leaders are urging European officials to extend their free-range status if an order to contain livestock to avoid bird flu is continued.

Presidents of the NFU in England, NFU Scotland, the Ulster Farmers' Union and NFU Cymru are to hold urgent discussions with MEPs and EU decision-makers in an effort to gain an extension to the 12-week free-range status of poultry affected by the compulsory housing order in place until February 28.

They will also ask that the extension applies to free-range eggs and poultry meat and continues until the risk from avian influenza subsides.

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

The rules allow poultry meat and eggs to be called free-range for up to 12 weeks if a compulsory housing order is in place.

An avian influenza prevention zone was declared on December 6 and will remain until February 28.

It requires owners to keep poultry and captive birds indoors or to take steps to separate them from wild birds.

The presidents said in a joint statement: "With this outbreak of avian influenza, we are in uncharted territory and this situation requires new measures that will help to solve the concerns of producers.

"The four UK farming unions are calling on MEPs and EU decision-makers to extend the 12-week period on free-range status until the risk has subsided to previous levels.

"Farmers across the UK and Europe need this extension to give them certainty that their produce will have a market.

"The demand from shoppers for free-range eggs and poultry meat has increased significantly over the past 25 years and we want our producers to be able to provide this for them.

"The UK market will, without doubt, be one of the most affected countries as a result of bird flu, due to half of our national flock being free-range, by far the highest percentage of any member state.

"If these steps aren't taken to protect the industry, producers are facing the very real prospect that they could go out of business and the UK market will be unable to enjoy the free-range products they demand.

"British farmers have been quick to introduce enhanced biosecurity measures and have ensured that the welfare of their birds remains an absolute priority."

On January 16, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) confirmed a case of bird flu in a flock of about 6,000 turkeys at a farm in East Lindsey, Lincolnshire.

Earlier in the month, the strain was also discovered in two small backyard flocks of chickens and ducks on premises near Settle in North Yorkshire, and Carmarthenshire, south-west Wales.

On Wednesday, Defra said tens of thousands of birds were being culled at a farm in Lancashire to prevent further spread of bird flu.

The H5N8 avian flu strain has already been confirmed in pheasants in two farms in Wyre, and proactive culling of 63,000 birds, including pheasants, partridges and ducks, at a third site nearby will take place to contain the spread.

A case of avian influenza has been detected in a wild bird in Northern Ireland

A swan found in County Londonderry near Lough Beg has tested positive for H5N8 avian influenza.

It is the first wild bird to be confirmed in Northern Ireland. A number of cases have already been confirmed in the Irish Republic.

A Prevention Zone in Northern Ireland has been extended until March 16 2017, requiring all keepers of poultry and other captive birds to keep their birds indoors, or take appropriate steps to keep them separate and protect them from wild birds

Chief Veterinary Officer Robert Huey said: "This finding is not unexpected and follows calls for bird keepers to be more vigilant for signs of the disease. It is possible that more cases will be confirmed.

"This finding serves to remind us all of the risk of infection. The Prevention Zone and temporary suspension on gatherings of poultry remain in place.

"It is also important that bird keepers in Northern Ireland remain vigilant and where necessary improve their biosecurity.

"Even when birds are housed there is still a risk of infection and biosecurity should not be compromised. Clothing and equipment should be disinfected, the movement of poultry should be reduced and contact between poultry and wild birds should be minimised."

Mr Huey added: "Expert advice remains that consumers should not be concerned about eating eggs or poultry and the threat to public health from the virus is very low.

"Poultry and other bird keepers are reminded that anyone who has any poultry or any other captive birds must be registered with the Department."

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