Millions of free-range hens and other birds will have to be kept indoors from 14 December, in a national government crackdown to try to limit the spread of a virulent strain of avian flu across Great Britain.
The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) said in a statement that the chief vets of England, Scotland and Wales had agreed the new legal requirement for all birdkeepers to bring their flocks indoors, to keep them separate from potentially infectious wild birds.
The strict new lockdown-style measures, which have already been introduced in the Netherlands, apply not only to large commercial poultry farms but also smaller keepers with hens in coops or garden pens. Keepers are being urged to use the next 11 days to prepare for the new measures, including taking steps to safeguard animal welfare, consult their vet and where necessary erect additional housing or self-contained netted areas.
Eggs can continue to be marketed and labelled as “free-range” for 16 weeks after the birds have been brought indoors, but if the restrictions last beyond that they must be downgraded to “barn produced” using stickers on packaging. Similarly, poultry meat can be labelled free-range for 12 weeks. To be defined as free range in the UK, a chicken must normally be at least 56 days old before slaughter and have had access to outside space for at least half that time.
Premium free-range eggs currently represent 56% of UK retail egg sales – the highest proportion of any European country – whereas just 2% of eggs are from the barn system.