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Do we need better relationships with backyard poultry keepers?

19 June 2019, at 9:00am

A research project in Scotland revealed attitudes of backyard keepers to biosecurity and veterinary care for their animals

Avian influenza circulating in Europe and Asia poses a constant seasonal risk to the UK poultry industry. While biosecurity and health and welfare in the commercial sector is well monitored, not much is known about the practices of small-scale, “backyard” keepers in Scotland. In order to gain further insight, qualitative research funded by the Scottish Government’s Centre of Expertise on Animal Disease Outbreaks (EPIC) was carried out in Aberdeenshire and Fife prior to the H5N8 outbreak in December 2016.

Interviews with 5 veterinarians and 37 owners of between 3 and 500 “kept” birds (non-commercial chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese, guinea fowl and rheas) in rural and urban areas highlighted that the perception of disease risk and biosecurity precautions in backyard flocks is low. The majority of keepers are unaware that a single case of avian influenza in a “kept” bird will have potentially catastrophic repercussions for the commercial poultry sector and a significant financial impact on the Treasury.

Keepers with 50 or more birds are legally required to register with the APHA, but few backyard keepers are registered with the APHA or have poultry registered with a vet. While keepers profess an emotional attachment to their birds, many feel their monetary value doesn’t justify the cost of veterinary attention and will dispatch a sick bird rather than seek veterinary advice. Moreover, keepers believe that vets know very little about “kept” birds. One keeper from Fife said: “But we’ve got a real problem, which is that vets know nothing about chickens. They know about sheds full of chickens: they can tell you that the air is supposed to move at about one metre per second ... And they can tell you about daylight and they can tell you about 72 days from birth to death of broilers ... But if you give them a chicken, they freak out.” The vets that were interviewed agreed that they rarely treat poultry in the surgery, although they were regularly observed on clients’ premises.

One vet from Aberdeenshire commented: “In terms of smallholders, I would struggle to put an exact number on it, but we definitely get presented with the odd chicken ... mostly it’s people coming and asking for advice about their chickens ... we don’t often see them per se. There would be a dozen that we would have contact with, but there would be many more than that, I’m sure, that have chickens that we don’t have contact with.”

Poultry are procured from various sources, including sales and shows where hundreds of birds can congregate. Researchers were interested in biosecurity practices around acquisition and following death.

Despite the risk of disease incursion, most keepers seem willing to “take the risk” when introducing new birds to their flock, with few carrying out quarantine procedures when acquiring stock or visiting poultry events. This laissez-faire attitude wasn’t as apparent among the “fanciers” (showing fraternity), who are inclined to follow more stringent biosecurity practices.

Attitudes to the disposal of dead birds in rural areas is somewhat cavalier. A keeper in Fife commented that there is a young fox in a wood near the farm where the poultry are kept, so they usually just feed any poultry that have died to the fox, “to keep it away”.

Keepers in towns are more likely to dispose of dead birds in the dustbin or bury them in the garden; one from Aberdeenshire commented: “I bury them under my apple trees.” One interviewee reported letting the carcasses rot in order to produce maggots for the other poultry to eat.

During the project, it quickly became clear that there is a lack of understanding and knowledge with regards to biosecurity, disease risk and the national consequences of avian influenza among backyard keepers in these areas of Scotland. This has been partly addressed through Scotland’s Healthy Animals website, but unregistered keepers still rely heavily on the numerous Facebook poultry groups for information and biosecurity alerts.

Vets interested in raising their profile with small-scale keepers may find these Facebook groups an effective way to engage with their local poultry community.

For more information, click here.

Carol Kyle, HNC, is a research assistant at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland. She originally trained in farm animal physiology and now works as a social researcher with a particular interest in farming, livestock disease and food security.

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