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Duck cull starts at bird flu farm

Culling of thousands of ducks has been taking place on a farm hit by bird flu, as officials confirmed it was the same strain of the virus as one recently identified on the continent.

Some 6,000 ducks were being killed on the farm at Nafferton, near Driffield, East Yorkshire, which is operated by the UK's largest producer of duck and duck products, Cherry Valley, following the identification of "highly pathogenic" H5N8 bird flu.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said the disease was the same strain as one confirmed at a chicken farm in the central province of Utrecht, the Netherlands, and in Germany.

But the advice from the chief medical officer and Public Health England remained that the risk to public health from the virus is "very low" and the Food Standards Agency has said there is no food safety risk for consumers, a Defra spokeswoman said.

She said the cull to prevent the potential spread of infection was being carried out in a "safe and humane manner" by fully-trained staff from the Government's Animal and Plant Health Agency, and was expected to be completed later in the day.

"Our animal health laboratory at Weybridge has confirmed that the outbreak of avian influenza in East Yorkshire is the H5N8 strain.

"The advice from the chief medical officer and Public Health England remains that the risk to public health is very low. The Food Standards Agency have said there is no food safety risk for consumers," the spokeswoman said.

John Vernam, managing director of UK Operations, Cherry Valley, said understanding the strain of bird flu was an important step forward, and the company was " keen" to find out how the outbreak happened in due course.

"We have followed all the necessary procedures which are robust and well established. For now, the priority is observing the two exclusion zones around the farm and the sanitary measures in place.

"There is complete traceability in the supply chain and any eggs that have left the site will be tested and the necessary procedures will be undertaken.

"We are working closely with Defra and other agencies and are confident that the controls in place are proportionate to the risks involved," he said.

The cull at the farm, where t he alarm was raised by a private vet on Friday, comes after the transport of poultry and eggs throughout the Netherlands was banned following the H5N8 outbreak in Utrecht.

Officials have been quick to reassure the public that the bird flu virus was not the H5N1 strain which has led to hundreds of deaths in people worldwide. Most types of bird flu are harmless to humans but two types - H5N1 and H7N9 - have caused serious concerns.

Officials are still investigating how the virus reached East Yorkshire, whether it could have be the result of commercial transport of birds, or carried by wild birds which are also affected by bird flu.

Experts have warned further outbreaks of bird flu could emerge in the coming days.

Chief veterinary officer Nigel Gibbens has said the Cherry Valley farm at the centre of the alert had good bio-security in place, and as a result the risk of spread is "probably quite low".

But he warned more cases could follow and, because of the risk of wild birds spreading the disease, urged farmers and their vets all over the country to be alert to the possibility of disease.

Keith Warner, president of the British Veterinary Poultry Association (BVPA), also said that, while previous outbreaks of bird flu had been effectively controlled on one or two isolated farms, there could be more incidents in the latest outbreak.

"Everybody in the UK that owns birds in any number should be on biosecurity lockdown," he urged, advising no unnecessary visits to farms, transport or sharing of equipment, and that all free-range birds in the restriction zone should be kept inside.

Paul Bellotti, head of housing, transportation and public protection at East Riding of Yorkshire Council, said council officers would in the six-mile (10km) surveillance zone and the two-mile (3km) protection zone around the farm to provide advice and guidance and gather data.

He said every registered poultry farm within the zones and other smaller non-registered poultry and bird keeping premises that officers became aware of would be visited during the day.

"Motorists and the travelling public should continue to use any and all routes on the highways network, unless they are advised otherwise, and, unless specifically closed, public footpaths remain open," he added.

In a statement the British Poultry Council said: " Defra confirmed this afternoon that the strain of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) found on a duck breeding farm in Yorkshire is of the H5N8 strain, which is a very low risk to human health and no risk to the food chain.

"Work is now under way to understand the route of the infection.

"The exclusion zones around the farm, at 3km (protection zone) and at 10km (surveillance zone), remain in place. Across the country a high level of surveillance of housed and wild birds is continuing."

The outbreak is the first serious case of bird flu since 2008, when the H7N7 strand was found in free-range laying hens near Banbury, Oxfordshire.

Professor Andrew Easton, professor of virology at the University of Warwick, said: "The identification of this strain as H5N8 increases the likelihood that it is linked with the outbreaks in Germany and the Netherlands.

"This will be the subject of further investigations to try to confirm the link by genetic analysis of the virus.

"The finding that it is H5N8, which has not been associated with infection of humans or other species, means that the threat to humans remains very low."

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