CIEL | Living with the Risk of Bird Flu Report 2023

It’s impossible to ignore Bird Flu – the effect it is having on the poultry industry and its impact on some wild bird populations. More recently, alarms have been raised regarding Bird Flu passing on to mammalian species, including humans.

Against this backdrop, CIEL has commissioned a report ‘Living with the Risk of Bird Flu’. The publication is designed to contribute to discussions in industry on how we learn to live with the risk of Bird Flu (Avian Influenza) and strategies that can be employed to do so.

The report has been written by Prof. Lisa Boden and her team at the University of Edinburgh Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Systems.

The report documents existing evidence (as of February 2023), identifies knowledge gaps and recommends future research priorities. This includes the risks of disease occurrence, spread and mitigation methods, and management & communication of risks during an outbreak. It also considers knowledge transfer between industry, scientists and policymakers, and the effectiveness of current and proposed (e.g. vaccination) mitigation methods.

Why has CIEL commissioned the report?

  • To offer a clear, concise summary of current situation
  • To inform and raise awareness of the issues associated with Bird Flu, particularly how it impacts farmers and wider agrifood supply chain
  • To provide practical guidance to help industry make informed decisions on managing the now enduring challenge of Bird Flu
  • To act as a stimulus for accelerating science and innovation
  • To promote and inform debate amongst industry and policy
  • To reveal and help address potential weaknesses in the supply chain
  • To highlight broader implications for managing animal health and welfare risks/dealing with disease.

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    Bird Flu, or Avian Influenza (AI), continues to pose a significant threat to bird health and welfare and sustainable poultry production in the UK and globally. The UK poultry industry is worth c£3.6 billion at the farm gate level. Total consumption of poultry meat is close to the total for beef, lamb and pork combined.

    UK poultry systems are highly efficient converters of feed inputs to nutritious protein for human consumption that is affordable for most consumers. In addition, egg production provides another highly nutritious food, eaten directly and a key ingredient in many readymade food items. Consequently, poultry has a key role in UK food production, providing an important source of protein in human diets.

    Disease outbreaks and health challenges are critically important to control, to maintain good animal welfare and to run profitable businesses. Bird Flu poses a considerable threat to this important food sector. It is highly contagious with a very high rate of mortality. Evidence of this is apparent from reports of unusually high death rates in wild bird populations. That in turn raises the level of risk to farmed poultry from wild birds.

    Where policy has been containment and elimination of the disease, the most effective control measures require slaughter of whole flocks to arrest spread of infection. This can be devastating for large scale producers right down to backyard flock owners. Prevention measures for large scale producers require rigorous biosecurity procedures, something that is not easily applied to flocks with access to the open air or smallholder flocks where wild birds can pass on the disease.

    One viewpoint is that Bird Flu is now here to stay. Where previously we had outbreaks in the Winter, with a respite in the Summer as weather conditions warmed and slowed transmission, that is now not happening. Outbreaks are occurring throughout the year, in more places, more often. So how do we farm poultry in a way that does not compromise animal welfare unduly while farming in more sustainable ways?

    CIEL commissioned this report to address this question. To this end, we have worked with a leading UK expert in this area. Professor Lisa Boden of the University of Edinburgh and her colleagues have provided a summary based on evidence from scientific studies and information collected in the UK and overseas on the monitoring and control of Bird Flu. This information has informed recommendations on how the industry can move forward against a backdrop where containing and eliminating this disease is becoming more of a challenge.

    This report is intended to inform debate about continuing to produce poultry food products in the face of the risk from Bird Flu.

    We need to tackle Bird Flu if we’re to continue producing poultry food products. Effective policies that support sustainable poultry production are also required. Bird Flu has implications for food security and the affordability of high-quality protein in our diets. With evidence of transmission to other species, we also need to be aware of the implications for animal and human health.

    Dr Mark Young

    Head of Innovation, CIEL

    This report has been developed to help commercial poultry and gamebird producers, small-scale poultry keepers and other bird owners achieve a better understanding of:

    • The likely impact on poultry production of Avian Influenza (AI) in terms of productivity, product quality, efficiency and carbon footprint.
    • Ways to minimise the effects of AI on UK poultry production systems with reference to preventing and controlling outbreaks and mitigating impacts.
    • Mitigation strategies for fully housed production systems versus free-range systems.
    • Actions the sector could take to reduce the impact of AI.

    The report identifies a number of critical challenges associated with AI and the UK outbreak response activities. These include:

    • The severe negative impacts of the disease on animal health and welfare, poultry producers’ well-being (including livelihoods), international trade and the environment.
    • The potentially serious threat to human health if AI became able to infect people more easily and spread from person to person.
    • The formal outbreak response may not be well-known to all involved and the activities to prevent and control the disease (including culling) are stringent and onerous for poultry keepers.
    • All involved may not be aware of all available and accessible resources on AI, making it potentially challenging and time-consuming for them to make a critical appraisal of the evidence and prevent spread of misinformation.
    • There are numerous uncertainties linked to risk management structures e.g., variability in biosecurity implementation between farms, awareness of industry, government guidance and regulations among small-scale poultry keepers, and the differential impacts of regulations on different parts of the poultry sector.
    • Although vaccination may prove to be an important aspect of strategies for sustainable control of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) in the future, it is not currently available in the UK due to technical and trade barriers.
    • While the commercial poultry sector has opportunities to influence government decision-making, the same opportunities for engagement may not be available to small-scale or backyard poultry keepers.

    Potential strategies to respond to these challenges are proposed for further exploration with stakeholders to encourage and ensure good practice and innovative transdisciplinary solutions for long-term resilience and adaptation:

    1. Strengthen existing science-policy-industry networks to include stakeholders and local knowledge in outbreak decision-making processes.
    2. Improve data collection on location and biosecurity practices for bird keepers with fewer than 50 birds.
    3. Work collaboratively with producers to optimise biosecurity recommendations to improve resilience to increased and sustained infection pressure from infected wild birds.
    4. Coordinate risk communication strategies to improve engagement and understanding of risks across backyard and commercial sectors.

    The report concludes by proposing a number of core principles to improve ways of working together:

    • Inclusive participatory approaches to facilitate collaboration with all stakeholders and integration of local knowledge into decision-making pathways.
    • Development of locally appropriate and acceptable interventions.
    • Trust-building exercises.
    • Active and empathetic listening to diverse voices and opinions.
    • Ethical (and therefore equitable) approaches to risk communication and management across all stakeholders within the poultry sector.


    The information in the report refers to the 2022 Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) outbreak in the United Kingdom (UK), is based on information available as of February 2023. The outbreak situation in the UK is rapidly changing and some of the data included may become outdated. For current up-to-date information about Avian Influenza (AI) or other infectious disease threats affecting the poultry sector, we recommend visiting the Scottish Government, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) or the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) websites for further information.

    This report identifies some clear challenges the poultry industry faces in dealing with the ongoing risk of Bird Flu. Many of these are centred around knowledge and communication and there is an overall requirement for all stakeholders to work together to overcome these challenges.

    It is important not to single out producers; more should be done to harmonise the response across the sector as a whole. The advice provided should be unambiguous and prevent the spread of misinformation. Variation also exists in the handling of the disease across the industry and UK, adding to confusion and uncertainty.

    More complete data collection and aggregation is needed to inform monitoring and enable proportionate and timely responses to outbreaks. This process should include small-scale flock owners, not just commercial producers. Disease does not respect national borders and aggregated data should be accessible by all Four Nations in the UK, and ideally also Ireland.

    Data will additionally provide the evidence base to explore new ways to minimise impacts of the disease through management, improved biosecurity, vaccines, and genetic selection for greater resistance to the disease in poultry.

    Key areas to develop common approaches include: 

    • Minimising risk from Bird Flu for all flock owners, for their own flocks and others
    • The collection, aggregation and reporting on industry data
    • Response processes and objectives
    • Communications which are accessible to all, both in terms of access and understanding
    • Close engagement with veterinary practices supporting poultry owners to ensure these key advisers are part of the process, from facilitating on-farm data collection through to advice on biosecurity and managing responses to outbreaks.

    Vaccination may be the answer in the long term but there are difficulties to overcome. The virus can mutate resulting in the need to update vaccines regularly to maintain adequate coverage and their use may compromise future management of Bird Flu. The mode of administration needs to be considered, especially when large numbers of birds need to be vaccinated and taking into account the short life cycle in broiler production.


    Producers cannot do this alone and specialist support is essential. There should be increased engagement with all producers, to include small-scale poultry keepers, to disseminate information and develop a common approach to managing Bird Flu. This would be aided by a register of all bird owners irrespective of flock size. Defra consultation on this is currently underway at the time of writing this report.

    Of utmost importance is support for all those involved in handling a Bird Flu outbreak. Support should be freely available to help them cope with the practical and emotional implications of outbreaks. In addition, producers should be fully compensated for the financial impacts associated with a Bird Flu infected flock.

    Further research areas

    One of the factors often overlooked is the interaction between production system and Bird Flu. Birds in free-range systems are perceived to have a higher welfare status but they are at greater risk of infection. Birds that are required to move indoors due to a housing order are at risk of stress as a result of the sudden change in environment. Future research could examine the effect of housing orders on free-range birds and focus on the opportunity to develop housing systems for such birds, which lowers the risk of Bird Flu and protects their welfare.

    Take home messages

    • The risk of Bird Flu is here to stay
    • Industry, Government, and small-scale producers need to collaborate to ensure up-to-date and accurate information is disseminated to all those involved
    • Government support will continue to be required and enhanced to ensure that all outbreaks are handled promptly and competently
    • More research is needed to continue work which is underway on vaccine development, supported by international agreement on availability, distribution and use
    • Research into production systems and Bird Flu risk is required.

    Download the full report

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