Our free-range farmers have had their work cut out since December keeping their chickens happy in a fully secure enclosure on their Bedfordshire farm away from wild birds. Anna Franklin told me they are relieved to be able to let their laying hens out today, having been literally “cooped-up” for 12 weeks to avoid the Avian Flu strain that had been seen in several areas of the UK in both wild and farmed birds. She said:
“We are not in a ‘higher risk zone’ so we are allowed to let them out today in a restricted area with high bio-security in place to minimise any risk of cross contamination. Luckily we are not currently going to have to re-label or make any changes, other than the extremely high bio-security measures in place to try to prevent wild bird contamination.”
They are indeed lucky as farmers in the higher risk zones still need to keep their flocks indoors for the foreseeable future. Sadly there is no clear date as to when the restrictions will be lifted UK wide. This will mean a big drop in the amount of UK eggs that can legally be called “free-range” as the limit for keeping free-range hens indoors is 12 weeks according to EU regulations. Many farmers will have to relabel their eggs as “Barn reared” until the restrictions are lifted, losing the premium they get for the extra freedoms they allow their chickens.
Our broiler, or meat producing chicken farmer Caldecott farms is also in a lower risk zone, so will be able to maintain free-range status too in the same way.
While the chickens’ welfare has been the top priority during the restrictions for both these farmers, with enough space to move around and added enrichments (or toys) such as footballs and whole cabbages for them to peck at, I’m sure both farmers and chickens will be relieved to have more freedom returned today.