Poultry farmers have been reassured that the risk level for bird flu has “reduced significantly” as as the requirement to confine or house poultry is lifted in Ireland, Northern Ireland, England and Wales from next week.

According to the Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine (DAFM) poultry and bird owners may let their birds out in open areas from April, 18 while the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) in Northern Ireland has also confirmed that the housing order will be lifted on the same day.

However DAFM has said that specific enhanced biosecurity requirements will remain in place to ensure that poultry or other captive birds cannot come into contact with wild birds.

DAERA has also confirmed that avian influenza prevention zone mandatory biosecurity measures will remain in force for all birds in Northern Ireland and all poultry gatherings remain banned.

One of the UK’s largest animal charities, the RSPCA, has welcomed the lifting of the compulsory housing order.

Dr Kate Norman, the RSPCA’s poultry expert said:

“We’d like to reassure farmers that the risk level for bird flu has reduced significantly and we’re pleased that the current housing order has now been lifted, so free range birds can get back outside and fully enjoy exhibiting their natural behaviours.

“However, we understand this is a big change for both birds and  farmers, and there may still be some concerns about the risk. However, strict biosecurity measures will remain firmly in place to help protect birds from the disease”.

She has urged farmers to “encourage” their birds outside and ensure they minimise any potential stress for the birds

“Providing birds with outdoor access gives them the freedom to express a greater range of natural behaviours.

“However, given birds have been kept indoors for the last five months, and therefore haven’t been used to going outside, they may initially express signs of fear and stress when the popholes are first opened. This could, for example, lead to issues such as feather pecking or the birds may not choose to go outside at all,” Dr Norman added.

According to RSPCA Assured – the charity’s farm animal welfare assurance scheme – farmers can minimise any fear or stress for birds by;

  • Providing shelters and structures around popholes to create a ‘corridor’ acting as a transition to the outside;
  • Areas to dustbathe;
  • Plenty of natural cover and enrichment close to the popholes which will encourage the birds outside;
  • Creating windbreaks for any exposed areas;
  • Ensure any wet areas of land or standing water are fenced off;
  • Creating key resource areas outside the popholes such as dry dustbathing locations and perching structures;
  • Providing a good surface outside the popholes to prevent poaching and maintain clean dry litter inside;
  • Practising excellent litter management and enrichment inside.