A WARNING has been issued to gamekeepers that ongoing restrictions to curb the spread of Avian Influenza could impact on this year’s game season.

The UK has recorded an unprecedented number of cases of Avian Influenza in the past few months, with new cases still being reported, which has meant the country is now pushing into the twelfth week of restriction zones for some areas.

Infected birds have been showing high-pathogenic H5N1, which is easily spread and causes very high mortality rates in most affected birds. Other symptoms of Avian Influenza can include: dullness; a loss of appetite; depression; coughing; nasal and ocular discharge; swelling of the face; nervous signs such as paralysis and sometimes green diarrhoea.

St David's Game Bird Services vets are predicting that Avian Influenza will continue to be a major industry challenge for 2022 and beyond and is urging game farms to ensure they enforce the strictest of biosecurity measures such as limiting wild bird contact; netting all ponds in close proximity and, if feed is spread on the ground, to ensure it is consumed in a short period of time.

“There have been numerous cases of AI reported in released wild pheasants this year,” Dr Matthew Balfour of St David’s explained. “Heavily stocked shoots in proximity to wetlands/waterfowl are at particular risk. Whilst wild bird cases aren’t subject to the same control zones as for captive poultry, there is still the potential for AI to cause high mortality in wild pheasants on a heavily stocked shoot, not to mention the risk to nearby poultry. Anyone handling dead game should follow strict hygiene and be aware of the possibility that it may be carrying AI.”

St David’s also recommended that the following biosecurity measures are put in place for kept birds: ”Limit the number of staff going in and out of where the birds are kept; use separate clothing and boots for birds kept in different locations; use of an appropriate disinfectant in a foot dip (refer to the DEFRA list of approved disinfectants or contact your vet for clarification); keep a written record of anybody going on and off site and keep different species separate if you have 'pet birds' on site.”

Dr Matthew Balfour added that if certain zones continue to follow the necessary 6 to 7 week average timeline for restrictions, that this could lead to some outlying effects on game farms.

“There could be challenges to breeding stock, where catching up stock is not possible or could even be stopped,” he explained. “This would be debilitating for several laying sites and have knock on effects across the supply chain.”

The UK does not vaccinate against Avian Influenza because the testing process currently used doesn’t differentiate between a bird that has been vaccinated or one which has been infected with a wild strain. This lack of ability to differentiate would mean that the UK couldn’t export poultry because it wouldn’t be able to prove AI negative status.