I’ve noticed that the hens aren’t outside on my local free range egg farm.
Why is this?

Like humans, birds can catch their own version of the flu and each winter different strains of bird flu can arrive in Europe and the UK, brought here by wild migrating birds, often waterfowl. The bird flu is spread from wild birds to hens when they fly over free range farms or land next door to hens when they are outside ranging in fields. If the strain of flu is particularly virulent it can cause severe disease and death to free range hens and other poultry kept outside. This year there have been a considerable number of outbreaks across the whole of the UK and therefore, the Government (through the Chief Veterinary Officer), has decided to make it compulsory for all poultry to be kept inside for a period of time to protect them from bird flu. This legislation affects both farmers and hobby keepers of hens in gardens and so on.

It is up to the Chief Veterinary Officers (CVO’s) in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to decide whether hens need to be housed. In England, free range hens were ordered to be housed from 7 November 2022, and they will continue to be housed until Government risk assessments indicate that free range hens are safe from catching bird flu.

Do hens mind being kept inside?
Free range hens are used to spending time inside their houses – all free range birds go inside at night anyway. They are free to roam around the house and have nesting boxes, perching areas and scratching areas. They have continuous access to feed and water.

So that they don’t get bored in the house, farmers provide enrichments and toys which stimulate them and provide activity and exercise. These include balls, hanging discs and plastic bottles, straw bales and pecking blocks. Some farmers put a radio on which provides background noise to prevent any loud noises (such as planes flying overhead or machinery in the yard) from surprising the birds.

Why are my eggs still called free range when the hens are not on the range?
When the Government requires hens to be housed for their own health, it allows farmers to carry on selling their eggs as free range for up to 16 weeks of housing. This is because the costs of looking after the hens stays the same during this temporary period.

In fact, the cost of looking after them often increases as the farmer has to spend more time with the hens to keep them occupied and provide more activities for them.

If there is bird flu circulating in the UK, are the hens’ eggs safe to eat?
Dr Gavin Dabrera, Consultant in Acute Respiratory Infections at Public Health England, said:

“Our advice regarding contact with wild birds remains the same – make sure to wash your hands thoroughly with soap after coming into contact with any animal and do not touch any sick or dead birds.”

The importance of biosecurity

Every UK egg and poultry farm is at risk from avian influenza – or bird flu as it is commonly known – which has been found in the UK after being brought in by migratory birds from Europe.

Winter is usually the high-risk period, and in 2017-18 all poultry farms were ordered to shut their livestock away for two months to mitigate the chance of an outbreak.

A single case of bird flu in a free range egg unit would result in every bird having to be culled to halt the spread of the virus.

This is not only awful for the birds but devastating for the farmer and their family who have to go through seeing entire flocks being destroyed through no fault of their own.

That’s why anyone who keeps poultry must adhere to strict biosecurity protocols.

If you suspect any type of bird flu you must report it immediately by calling the Defra Rural Services Helpline on 03000 200 301.

In Wales, contact 03000 200 301.

In Scotland, contact your local Field Services Office. Failure to do so is an offence.

Visit the BFREPA website for all the information you need on how to protect your chickens from bird flu and for regular bird flu updates.