'Good news' for Christmas dinner as farms avoid bird flu this year

The overall situation currently “looks good” and it is hoped an outbreak in poultry can be avoided — but Mr Corkery warns that “we can never be sure”.
'Good news' for Christmas dinner as farms avoid bird flu this year

Denise and Sean Healy with their turkeys in Carrignavar, Co Cork. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Those hoping to have their turkey Christmas dinner next month will celebrate the “good news” that there have been no outbreaks of bird flu, in poultry in Ireland, so far this year.

In fact, there are fewer wild birds showing up positive for Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), Department of Agriculture senior superintending veterinary inspector Paul Corkery has told the Irish Examiner.

The overall situation currently “looks good” and it is hoped an outbreak in poultry can be avoided — but Mr Corkery warns that “we can never be sure”.

“We’re looking at the risk, and the risk at this stage appears to be lower than it was last year that we would have an outbreak in poultry,” he said.

However, that being said, the new season has just started since October 1.

“The seabirds and different colonies of birds — they tend to come from Siberia — they migrate along migratory pathways and they come to us, so it might be a bit premature to tell yet what this season will bring.”

Last year there were two outbreaks on turkey farms in Ireland — and the industry was “very worried”, because quite a large number of wild birds were showing up positive, Mr Corkery said.

“We had a good bit of evidence that there was a lot of it in the wild birds, particularly in seabirds.

“Fortunately, we didn’t have any more outbreaks in poultry,” he said.


Mr Corkery said in some wild bird populations “there seems to be more immunity”.

“They’ve dealt with the virus, there’s been some die-off, but the ones that survived it are immune and less likely to get infected,” he said.

Bird flu is a global problem – South America, for example, is having big die-offs this year, Mr Corkery said.

The Antarctica region has even detected its first case of bird flu recently.

The World Organisation for Animal Health, in its most recent report on bird flu, said the first occurrence of HPAI in South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, in early October, was a “very concerning event”.

In August, experts “highlighted the substantial risk of a HPAI southwards spread to Antarctica and its offshore islands, due to the spring migration of wild birds from South America to breeding sites in the Antarctic,” the report reads.

“Experts highlighted that the negative impact of HPAI on Antarctic wild birds, and mammal populations, could be immense, both because of their likely susceptibility to mortality from this virus and their occurrence in dense colonies of up to thousands of pinnipeds and hundreds of thousands of birds, allowing efficient virus transmission.

“It is very worrying to see that the disease has progressed in this direction over the last few weeks.”

Mr Corkery explained that there are “various populations worldwide that are more susceptible, or completely naive”.

“Whereas here in Europe, it would appear there’s a level of immunity coming in,” he said.

Britain suffered significantly with bird flu outbreaks in the last year, but “this part of the season it’s slower”.

Housing orders

A year ago in Ireland, farmers had been ordered to house all poultry due to the risk of bird flu.

This rule was lifted in the following April.

There are currently no restrictions in place for poultry farms.

“Poultry farmers, they’re very experienced now in having high levels of biosecurity,” Mr Corkery said.

A housing order could happen; at the moment we don’t have justification for doing it.

“There would be concerns to have to do it because birds that are outdoors, if you confine them and bring them indoors, it can put a lot of welfare pressures on those birds if the housing isn’t adequate.

“We’ll only do it if we deem it necessary and at the moment, thankfully, it doesn’t look like it’ll be necessary unless the number of wild birds we’re finding positive increased or there’s a surge.”


Generally, the cause of bird flu coming into poultry houses is where there has been a wild bird incursion, where there are either bird droppings or perhaps feathers.

The advice for farmers is to minimise the number of people that come onto their poultry holding.

Those who do should ensure they are wearing the correct PPE and that they’re very careful about footwear.

“If you use your street clothes and you walk into a poultry unit, it’s very likely that you could take in dander, feathers, and droppings on the soles of your shoes,” Mr Corkery explained.

“There needs to be disinfectant, there needs to be a change of shoes and overalls to make sure there are not any external fomites transferred to the poultry.”

If birds are outdoors, feed and feeding equipment shouldn’t be accessible to wild birds — they are attracted to it.

If birds are indoors, farmers should make sure there are no holes where wild birds can access housing.

“We were very fortunate the last couple of years and that’s down to the good biosecurity practices I believe, and hopefully those biosecurity practices will continue, and we will have plenty of turkey for Christmas,” Mr Corkery added.

Turkey day approaches

Poultry farms across the country are coming into their final weeks of rearing this year’s birds.

Denise Healy’s free-range farm in Carrignavar, Co Cork, will be supplying around 1,000 homes with their turkey for Christmas.

She is relieved to have emerged unscathed from last year’s bird flu scare and this year, “while there is always a fear of bird flu, so far so good”.

Healy's Free Range Turkeys. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Healy's Free Range Turkeys. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

She said the turkeys have their freedom outside this year — although they choose the shelter during much of the bad weather, as “they don’t like getting their feathers wet, so they’re in and out, the doors are open, it’s their own choice”.

But on a very wild, windy day — and certainly, many of those have occurred recently in Co Cork — “you’d be closing the doors and letting them inside, for the welfare of the bird you have to gauge this”.

All going well, turkey collection days for home orders will take place on December 23 and 24.

The farm also supplies three butchers in the English Market in Cork city, another butcher in Ballincollig, one in Mitchelstown, and one in Tullamore.

Strong trade

Last year, “there was a very strong trade there”, Ms Healy said.

A difference between this year and last is the turkey size people are requesting.

“I have no one looking for very small turkeys,” Ms Healy said.

“People are cautious as well with the prices of everything, but at the same time if they’re getting good quality, people are inclined to pay.”

She added that input costs, particularly feed, are still very high this year, and have shown few signs of coming down.

“You’d be watching the costs, you want to be savvy, but you don’t want to be passing it on to the consumer all the time as well,” Ms Healy said.

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Karen Walsh

Karen Walsh

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