Christmas dinner: UK turkey shortage fears grow after more than half of free range birds lost to avian flu

The United Kingdom is currently experiencing its worst ever outbreak of bird flu, which has resulted in the loss of millions of domestic birds

An industry chief has told MPs that half of the free range Christmas turkeys have either been culled or died as a result of avian influenza  (bird flu). Chief executive of the British Poultry Council, Richard Griffiths said that around 600,000 of the 1.3 million free range birds produced for Christmas had been lost.

To combat the outbreak of avian flu, the government recently ordered all poultry and captive birds to be kept indoors. However, Mr Griffiths said that costs to the industry were “potentially enormous”.

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The UK is currently experiencing its worst ever outbreak of bird flu. It’s an infectious disease that has been around for about 100 years. It usually flares up in the autumn before dying down.

The most prevalent strain now, H5N1, was first reported in China back in 1996. This year, the virus seems to be more dangerous than ever, and lasting longer too. It can spread through birds’ droppings and even saliva.

Speaking to the BBC, Professor Munir Iqbal of the UK’s Pirbright Institute claims that 160 million birds have been killed by the virus. He said “160 million domestic birds worldwide have been killed by this virus, or have had to be culled by farmers to contain it”.

Despite almost half of the free range turkeys produced in time for Christmas being lost, farmers claim that they are still not sure if prices will rise. Speaking to MPs, UK turkey hatchery owner, Paul Kelly, said there will most likely be a supply issue, rather than a price hike. "But there will be a big, big shortage of British free range turkeys on the shelves this year,” said Mr. Kelly.

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The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) claims around 11 million turkeys are produced annually in the UK, and around 1.4 million turkeys have currently been culled.