An epidemic of H5N8 avian flu, which for months has infected birds and led to massive culls across Eurasia, may threaten the long-term future of free range farming in Europe.
In November and December, outbreaks of flu transmitted from wild birds led several European countries, including Switzerland, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Ireland, to cut off outdoor access to free range farm birds. Under European Union rules, eggs from chickens kept indoors can still be marketed as free range for up to twelve weeks. The twelve week mark has now passed, but the threat of bird flu has not. For as long as farm birds remain cooped up inside, their eggs can no longer be legally sold as free range. Instead, supermarkets are relabeling egg cartons with stickers stating,
“Laid by hens temporarily housed in barns for their welfare.”
Under European Union rules, free range laying hens must be given continuous access to an outdoor area of at least four square meters per bird. Currently, around fifty percent of eggs sold in the UK, and fourteen percent across the EU, come from birds on free range farms. If such farms continue to suffer financial losses to bird flu, their share of the market could be taken over by cage and barn farms. Cage and barn farming systems do not provide outdoor access, and are allowed to confine hens as densely as nine birds per square meter.
Meanwhile, mass culling continues across Europe and Asia to combat new outbreaks of bird flu. The H5N8 strain of avian flu was first transmitted from wild migratory birds to livestock in 2014. While highly contagious to birds, it so far is not known to infect humans, although the related H5N1 and H7N9 viruses have killed hundreds of people. The total death tolls from this winter’s culls range from three point two million birds in France, to as many as thirty five million in South Korea. Gassing to death is the most common method of culling used, though birds may also be electrocuted or suffocated in nitrogen foam.
(Featured image: Free range chickens in Scotland. Credit Agriculture, Food and Rural communities, CC BY-NC 2.0)