Avian flu pushes poultry businesses to the brink

Bird flu threatens to destroy poultry businesses – because insurers are reluctant to offer cover for the notifiable disease.

Turkey farmers appear to be extremely vulnerable, with many small and medium-sized farmers unable to purchase insurance, leaving them open to a whole year without income if the virus were to appear in their flock.

NFU Scotland Poultry Chairman Robert Thompson said: “The threat of disease is immense. From our understanding, very few insurers offer avian flu coverage and those that do are very expensive with stringent caveats on biosecurity protocols.

Read more: Pirbright joins effort to fight bird flu

Summer generally sees fewer outbreaks of the disease, but so far in September alone there have been nine cases in the UK. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has confirmed that cases of highly pathogenic H5N1 bird flu have been found in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex since Saturday and began culling the birds this week . Fortunately, few confirmed cases have occurred in Scotland so far.

Mr Thompson, a poultry farmer who works for T Pak based in Forfar, said: ‘If someone gets bird flu you take an obvious massive loss when they cull the flock, but there are also huge cleaning and disinfection costs afterwards. The union is struggling to understand how companies can obtain insurance for these losses, but we find that underwriters are reluctant to support avian flu policies. We have a committee meeting coming up to explore what can be done and we are taking the Scottish Agriculture Minister to visit a poultry farm this week to raise the issue.

“Some poultry farmers have a rollover policy, but that policy is getting more and more expensive,” he added. “We will ask the government what support can be given to farmers affected by the disease.”

The threat of an outbreak of avian influenza on farms is all the more acute for turkey units which generally have only one harvest of animals per year. If they suffer from an epidemic and have to cull all their birds, they are looking at a year of spending with no income, which could push many into bankruptcy.

Mr Thompson said: ‘We all want to help those who have been struck down by the disease, but the best thing to do is to avoid it in the first place. The answer is improved biosecurity to keep disease out of herds. I know firsthand that many poultry units work hard to have perfect biosecurity, but unfortunately in too many cases the measures to ward off disease are lacking. The message must convey to the industry that we must do our best to keep the disease out.

“We also need an effort to ensure that the hundreds of backyard flocks, where people keep a few hens, meet government biosecurity requirements as they arrive this winter.”

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