BC poultry farmers are taking extra precautions to prevent the spread of avian flu, which has now been confirmed in two flocks in the province.
The virus has already led to hundreds of thousands of birds being killed across the country since late last year, and the local industry is ramping up biosecurity measures to try and avoid the kind of devastation outbreaks have caused in the past.
Many farmers in the province are still dealing with the aftermath of last fall’s floods, and now poultry farms are facing a threat that has been catastrophic for flocks in the past: a highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza.
Amanda Brittain, director of communications with BC Egg and information officer with the BC Poultry Association, said there are three levels to their biosecurity program in the province, and they recently moved to the highest level: red.
“Concern amongst poultry farmers in BC is high, but they’re calm,” Brittain said. “We have biosecurity measures in place to help protect the birds and they’re taking every precaution to keep those birds safe and healthy.”
As of April 25, cases of the H5N1 virus have been detected in two locations: a commercial poultry flock in the North Okanagan, and more recently a backyard flock in Kelowna. Two bald eagles in Metro Vancouver have also tested positive over the past few months.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency said the most recent flock to test positive is under quarantine, and the birds will be euthanized.
“The number one way which avian influenza is transmitted is through wild birds when they’re migrating,” Brittain said. “Everybody is working together to try and prevent it from getting into barns.”
Environment Canada research scientist Jennifer Provencher said this strain has been circulating in Canada for a few months now, and in Europe for even longer.
“Generally, avian influenza is transmitted through fecal and oral secretions,” she said. “Where birds might congregate on the land, it can kind of settle into the soil in the right conditions.”
Provencher said while human health concerns have been lower with this strain, the risk to birds appears to be elevated.
“It’s actually having a wider effect on more species,” she said. “We’re seeing higher levels of mortality in some species.”
Ron McGivern and his family have chickens at their farm west of Kamloops, and also run a rent-the-chicken program, where people can experience having backyard hens in a mobile coop for about six months before they’re returned.
“It does concern me that people would lose the opportunity to have that experience because of this,” he said, and added the spread of avian flu has them deeply concerned. “We’ve had to really ramp up some of the protocols that we already had in place.”
McGivern said they are recommending people keep their chickens in the mobile coop at this time, to keep them safe, and away from standing bodies of water where migratory fowl can congregate.
He said they also suggest using a pair of dedicated footwear to go visit and feed the chickens, and not let others near the birds if they have poultry of their own at home.
“We are following the experts on this,” he said. “What the experts are saying is the risk to the public is very low, however of course, you still have to be exceptionally vigilant.”
Many enhanced protocols being followed by the industry at large are aimed at helping poultry avoid contact with wild birds, including avoiding having the virus accidentally tracked onto a farm.
Those measures include a requirement from BC’s deputy chief vet to keep flocks over 100 birds inside until the end of May, footwear and clothing changes when entering barns, and restricting access to poultry farms.
All poultry owners are being asked to watch for changes in their bird’s health.
“If you see a drop in water consumption, a drop in egg production, or if the birds are acting oddly,” Brittain said. “Call your vet, and they can do some testing.”
Provencher is also encouraging people to report any discoveries of deceased wild birds, or wild birds that appear sick, to the Wild Bird Network at 1-866-431-BIRD.
She added anyone with bird feeders should ensure they are kept clean, and if you also have domestic birds, consider taking those feeders inside for the seaso