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A bad week for birds - thanks to us?

Friday 22 July 2005

As killer diseases hit pheasants in Surrey and humans in South East Asia, our countryside commentator John Sheard wonders if the trouble with birds is caused by us, the people who keep them.

BIRDS received a bad press this week, what with thousands of hand-reared pheasants being destroyed in Surrey and British health workers being issued with millions of protective vaccines in the dreadful event of an outbreak of avian flu.

In Surrey and at a secret location in France (it being France) the deadly (to birds) Newcastle disease had been detected and more than 50,000 hand-reared pheasants and partridges were destroyed. This disease is as dangerous to poultry as foot and mouth is to cattle and sheep but - fortunately - poses no threat to man (see News).

A bad week for birds - thanks to us?

Some 7,000 miles away in Jakarta, a family was wiped out by a much more sinister threat: avian flu. Although, so far, this disease has only appeared in rare cases in China and Vietnam, its arrival across the South China Sea in Indonesia rang alarm bells throughout the world.

Avian flu, as it names suggests, usually attacks birds and, in particular, domestic poultry. But by jumping to mankind it threatens to cross-breed with human flu viruses and evolve into a killer bug that could cause a worldwide pandemic like the one in 1919 which killed tens of millions of people - more, in fact, than died in the trenches of World War 1.

Now this is, I admit, a pretty grim subject but it is one of interest to thousands of country folk, from poultry farmers and vets via grouse moor owners to their game keepers, who were this week urged by Defra to take extra bio-protection measures.

But what concerns me is that most people probably blame these problems on the birds when, in fact, it is most likely that these conditions were caused - or at least made a great deal worse - by the conditions in which they are kept by man.

Quite frankly, I was amazed to discover that there was a single farm in France which stocked 20,000 pheasants and 35,000 partridges. I knew, of course, that during la chasse the French shoot anything that moves (including song birds) but aren't pheasant and partridge supposed to be wild creatures?

I know that gamekeepers in Britain have been hand-rearing pheasants and grouse for generations - but in the few hundreds, not the tens of thousands.

As for Avian flu, the conditions in which poultry are kept in South East Asia are truly appalling: I know, I've seen them. They live their life in filth, are fed filth, and are taken to market covered in filth.

Most of the local peasants, I suppose, have grown some sort of immunity to this over the years, but I dread to think what would happen if their poultry diseases were allowed to run amok amongst scrubbed and disinfected Westerners.

I write all this, incidentally, when both my wife and I are recovering from a pretty nasty stomach bug which put us in bed for 24 hours and left us still sore three days later. And guess what we had for Sunday lunch? Roast chicken, of course: I'll lay odds that we had salmonella, which causes several million outbreaks of food poisoning every year in the UK alone.

Salmonella is, as Edwina Curry was famously sacked for saying, endemic in the British and French poultry population, thanks mainly to factory farming. So are we now to inculcate yet another infectious disease in our wild game birds?

The partridge, in particular, is in grave danger of extinction as it is, without Newcastle disease adding to the mix. Should it escape into the wild population, shall we see another disaster like the one now attacking wild salmon which have picked up disease from salmon farmed in cages in the once pristine sea lochs of Western Scotland?

When will mankind ever learn to work with Mother Nature, rather than gang-raping her in the constant pursuit of bigger profits? Or will be soon singing, to paraphrase the old protest song, "Where have all the game birds gone..."

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