Free-range eggs to return to supermarket shelves in days as bird flu restrictions ease

Experts say the move is good for consumers but there is still “trepidation” amongst farmers as bird flu is still around in wild birds

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Free-range eggs will return to supermarket shelves within days as bird flu restrictions across most of the UK ease on Tuesday.

Robert Gooch, CEO of the British Free-Range Egg Producers Association, said the news is good for “birds that have been kept inside over the winter months” and for “consumers that want to buy free range eggs.”

Although he said farmers are still “feeling a sense of trepidation” given that bird flu is still around in wild birds.

Free-range egg prices have risen over the past year due to egg shortages driven partly by bird flu but mainly by farmers quitting because of poor prices from retailers, he added.

Despite the lifting of restrictions, experts say the H5N1 virus is still circulating, posing an ongoing risk to wild birds.

The government said wild birds still faced " a significant threat" from the virus, while the RSPB fears a repeat of last year’s "catastrophic" toll on breeding colonies during the world’s largest ever bird flu outbreak.

Last year saw the biggest ever outbreak of bird flu in the UK and the world. The H5N1 virus caused thousands of deaths in seabirds that have now returned to the UK coast to nest.

Dozens of different species of wild birds were also hit, including golden eagles, buzzards, herring gulls and gannets.

Mammals were infected, including otters, foxes, seals and dolphins, and there were hundreds of outbreaks at poultry farms - with four million farm birds culled.

But the threat of the virus is now deemed low enough to allow free-range poultry and captive birds to be kept outside across the UK, except in small pockets of England and Wales where protection zones are still in place.

Farmers will have to adhere to strict biosecurity measures and keep birds away from land where wild birds congregate.

RSPB director of advocacy and policy Jeff Knott said that bird flu has “certainly not gone away for wild birds” and this is causing a worry amongst farmers.

He added: “Too often the impacts on wild birds - which are incredibly severe - get forgotten. We have to be careful we don’t sleepwalk into a catastrophe for our wild birds.”

Prof James Wood of the department of veterinary medicine at the University of Cambridge told BBC News that he welcomed the move of relaxing restrictions.

He said: "Where the risk has reduced substantially because the epidemic in wild birds has come down so much over recent weeks it seems very reasonable to me to relax the housing order so that birds can go outside and be free range again and express their normal behaviour in parallel with much improved welfare.”

Dr Kate Norman, RSPCA’s laying hen welfare expert, said: “We know that many people were really concerned when they could no longer buy free-range eggs. UK shoppers have a good level of awareness about how laying hens have been cared for thanks to clear labelling on eggs, so the news that hens will be let back outside will be welcomed by many.”

Ms Norman expressed concern for the welfare of the birds, saying they “may initially express signs of fear and stress when they are first let outside.”

She said: “Given birds have been kept indoors for the last five months, and therefore haven’t been used to going outside, they may initially express signs of fear and stress when they are first let outside. In response, we have issued advice to farmers on ways to encourage hens out on the range and how to minimise their stress.

“This includes creating shelters and structures for them to use on the range and natural cover as well as providing areas for them to dustbathe, forage and perch to encourage them out of the barn”.

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