We Keep Chickens in Our Backyard: A Guide to Eggs, Welfare and Bird Flu

4 August 2023
We Keep Chickens in Our Backyard: A Guide to Eggs, Welfare and Bird Flu

Gemma Lees on the UK egg industry, the history of the Avian Influenza pandemic and what to do to keep your back yard chickens and other fowl happy and healthy

Backyard fowl, (mainly turkeys, chickens, ducks and geese), ownership has exploded in the last few years, owing to pandemic-fuelled food shortage worries, drastically rising food costs amidst the Cost-of-Living Crisis and the influence of A-listers, such as Julia Roberts, Jennifer Anniston and Reece Witherspoon who all keep chickens as pets.

According to the Pet Food Manufacturer’s Association, (PFMA), there are now more than 1.4 million fowl kept as pets in the UK. That sounds like an enormous number, until you look at the sheer numbers of farmed poultry. According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, (Defra), there are 2.5 chickens farmed worldwide for every human being on Earth, approximately 17 billion birds. In the UK alone there are approximately 29 million laying hens, 116 million broilers, (chickens raised for meat), 4.9 million turkeys, 2 million ducks and 105,000 geese.

Keeping backyard chickens for eggs is a sound financial investment as 6 free-range eggs costs around £2 in supermarkets, when they are even available. the Financial Mail on Sunday estimates that a brood of five hens can save you around £300 a year, with rescue ex-caged chickens available to re-home for free and the average bird costing only £20 a year to feed.

This isn’t the only advantage, as well-managed free-range hens with access to the outside world and can exhibit more of their natural behaviours, such as scratching for bugs, wing flapping, nesting, sunbathing and dustbathing, according to the British Hen Welfare Trust, (BHWT). Interestingly, even ex-caged recue hens who have never had the opportunity to practice these things, will instinctively do them once given the opportunity.

The main alternative to free-range, since battery cages were banned in Britain and the EU in 2012, are enriched cages. Compassion In World Farming, (CIWF), describe these claustrophobic cages as only having slightly more room per bird than battery cages and despite them having designated areas designed to promote natural behaviours, chickens are still incredibly restricted. Dr Laura Higham, (Programme Manager and Veterinary Consultant at FAI Farms), argues that these restrictions which can lead to feather pecking and ‘sham’ behaviours, (such as sham dustbathing where they perform all of the action of dustbathing, but without any dust), mean that enriched cages fail to conform to the Farm Animal Welfare Council’s, (FAWC), ‘Five Freedoms’ of animal welfare. Namely, the ‘freedom to express normal behaviour’.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals UK, (PeTAUK), report that caged and barn chickens consistently suffer from osteoporosis and broken bones. Their housing is often filthy and birds can be forced to live with rotting, dead cagemates for some time before they are removed. To prevent chickens from pecking and injuring each other due frustration and boredom, the ends of their beaks are removed by infrared laser at a few days old.

Unlike backyard chickens who are also usually beloved pets, commercial layers are just that, commercial. Chickens can live for six years, but according to CIWF, when their productivity starts to slow down after 12 months on farms, they are sent to slaughter.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England, (CPRE), estimates that 58% of the 28.7 million eggs people in the UK eat per day that are produced in the UK, are produced in caged or barn systems. Egg-laying hens are one of very few UK farm animals that are confined for their entire productive lives.

Another massive risk to both animals and humans in any commercial factory farming is what World Animal Protection describes as ‘an existential threat to people and the planet too’. They quite rightly point out that the next global pandemic could well be due to factory farming.

Avian Influenza, or bird flu, is one such pandemic. Vegetarian’s International Voice for Animals, (Viva!), describes large-scale factory farms as being ‘a perfect storm of our own making’, allowing a non-harmful illness that co-existed in aquatic birds to infiltrate live-poultry markets in China, and then mutate into a much more virulent strain via birds’ faeces in crowded, stressful, and unsanitary conditions.

Bird flu first came to international attention when it caused six human deaths in 1997. There have since been cases in wild UK dolphins, seals, otters and foxes and the World Health Organisation, (WHO), reports that between 1 October 2021 and 20 January 2023, there have been reports in 79 countries of cases in 5602 domestic birds, 4271 wild birds and 119 mammals. These are just the cases that have been reported. Tragically, bird flu has also killed 458 humans, from 873 infections.

An ‘Avian Influenza Prevention Zone’, (AIPZ), for poultry and captive birds was previously placed over the UK by Professor Christine Middlemiss, the UK's Chief Veterinary Officer. This was lifted on 4th July, though bird gatherings in Wales, Scotland and England are still prohibited for all kept anseriformes, galliformes and poultry, (including chickens, ducks, geese, turkey, and pheasants).

It is still recommended that all keepers of poultry, including backyard chickens, remain vigilant to bird flu and look out for the signs in their birds, which include:

  • sudden death
  • swollen head
  • closed and runny eyes
  • lethargy and depression
  • lying down and unresponsiveness
  • lack of coordination
  • eating less than usual
  • sudden increase or decrease in water consumption
  • head and body shaking
  • drooping of the wings
  • dragging of legs
  • twisting of the head and neck
  • swelling and blue discolouration of comb and wattles
  • haemorrhages and redness on shanks of the legs and under the skin of the neck
  • breathing difficulties such as gaping, nasal snicking, sneezing, gurgling or rattling
  • fever or noticeable increase in body temperature
  • discoloured or loose watery droppings
  • stop or significant drop in egg production

If you suspect bird flu, you must report it immediately to your local Field Services Office if you’re in Scotland or by telephoning the Defra helpline on 03000 200 301 if you’re in England or 03003 038 268 if you’re in Wales. It is an offence to neglect to do so.

Defra has a separate helpline for reporting wild birds, you should telephone 03459 33 55 77 if you find one or more bird of prey, three or more dead gulls or wild waterfowl or five or more dead birds of any species. The National Farming Union, (NFU), states that you must dispose of any dead wild birds if you find them on your property and you keep backyard birds. You can do this in your residential waste by following these stringent safety steps:

  • Wear disposable protective gloves or use plastic bags as makeshift gloves
  • Lift the bird using an in turned bag, the bag can be turned back on itself and tied off
  • The bag should then be placed in a second plastic bag, ensuring not to contaminate the outside of the outer bag
  • Remove any hand coverings and place them in the second bag as well
  • Tie the second bag closed and dispose of in the normal household waste
  • Wash your hands thoroughly

Although the government’s ‘flockdown’ has officially come to an end, (for now at least), there are still a few additions to your backyard set-up that you can make to keep your birds healthy. Gardens Illustrated recommends a covering for your run that prevents any faeces from wild birds dropping through, this can be as simple as a tarpaulin held in place by bungee cords or else moving your hen house into a fruit cage, which will also have a added benefit of keeping foxes out. Feeders must be squirrel and rat proof and a simple foot dip consisting of a washing-up bowl filled with water and a sachet of the disinfectant, Virkon S is recommended to wash your boots every time you leave the birds’ areas.

Well-kept backyard chickens undoubtedly have the happiest, healthiest, and longest lives of any egg layers in the UK. Less reliance on farmed eggs can help in the minimisation of the current bird flu pandemic and the development of future pandemics and all it requires is a little effort, expenditure, and vigilance.

By Gemma Lees/TT Features

(Photograph © Alison Chapman)