Prepare for ‘big, big shortages’ of free-range turkeys this Christmas! HALF have already died due to UK’s biggest ever bird flu outbreak, farmers warn
- Half of free-range turkeys have already died due to avian influenza this year
- This will leave ‘big, big shortage’ on shop and butcher shelves, top supplier says
- Britain is currently being ravaged by its biggest ever bird flu outbreak
Britons seeking a turkey for Christmas this year face mammoth shortages due to the bird flu outbreak, farmers warned today.
Half of the free-range birds have already died due to avian influenza this year, leaving a ‘big, big shortage’ on the shelves, one of the nation’s top suppliers told MPs.
Britain is currently being ravaged by its biggest ever bird flu outbreak, with health chiefs culling nearly 4million birds in the last year and ordering the lockdown of all kept birds in a bid to stall the spread.
Paul Kelly, a poultry farmer at Kelly Turkeys in Essex, said that major supermarkets would see the biggest effect. But he noted that some local butchers could have none at all.
The UK produces roughly 11million turkeys every year, but almost a third of those – 3.5mil – have been culled due to the spread of the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus strain in 2022
Genetically-edited chickens that are immune to bird flu could be a reality within a decade, scientists believe.
The breakthrough could finally spell an end to supermarket shortages of eggs and poultry from avian influenza.
Britain is currently being ravaged by its biggest ever bird flu outbreak, with health chiefs culling nearly 4million birds in a year and ordering the lockdown of all kept birds in a bid to stall the spread.
As well as emptying shop shelves of eggs, the spike in cases has sparked fears of a turkey shortfall this Christmas.
The new technique, developed three years ago, removes a section of the birds’ DNA that the virus uses to replicate.
Successful tests were carried out in chicken cells.
But Dr Mike McGrew, who heads the study, revealed results involving live chickens will be published shortly.
Dr Mike McGrew, a senior lecturer at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, told The Daily Telegraph: ‘We have been working on this project since those first results were published back in 2019 and we have results.
‘These are described in a scientific paper that is currently under review in a journal.
‘Breeding a chicken completely resistant to infection by avian influenza viruses is a scientific challenge and the research into the efficacy of any genetic resistance must be carefully developed.’
He added: ‘If a resistant chicken were developed it would take five to 10 years before the genetic change was introduced into production flocks of chickens.’
The unprecedented flu outbreak has seen 256 cases in both wild and captive birds — caused by the H5N1 strain — detected since the outbreak began in October 2021.
The situation was triggered by a record number of bird flu cases across England, Scotland and Wales last winter. Despite levels usually falling in the summer, they continued to rise.
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee held a hearing on the ‘worst ever’ bird flu season.
Geraint Davies, Labour MP for Swansea West, asked experts about what the situation means for those trying to buy turkey this year.
Richard Griffiths, British Poultry Council chief executive, told MPs: ‘The usual amount of free-range birds grown for Christmas is around 1.2 to 1.3million. We have seen around 600,000 of those free-range birds being directly affected — so died, culled.’
Overall, the UK produces to 9million turkeys for Christmas every year. But around one million have died or been culled due to the outbreak.
Asked what that might mean for prices this Christmas, Mr Griffiths said: ‘I don’t know. And that’s really a question for retailers at this point. We do not how the gaps within retailers are going to be filled.’
Mr Kelly said: ‘I don’t think UK turkey prices are going to be going up. I think it will just be a supply issue rather than the prices being hiked.
‘But there will be a big, big shortage of free-range British turkeys on the shelves this year.’
Asked whether he thought factors beyond avian flu were affecting supply, Mr Kelly said: ‘No I don’t. I think the number of free range turkeys that were placed were similar or little more than last year.
‘But there’s 600,000 been killed because of avian influenza.’
He added: ‘The main producers for that were for the supermarkets.
‘A lot of the independent butcher trade [relies on] the local farmer. Now, if that local farmer gets infected, he either can or can’t supply the butcher.
‘So there are lots of independent butchers this year not selling Christmas poultry because they don’t have a supplier.
‘The ones that haven’t been infected, those butchers will be selling Christmas poultry. The biggest effect has been on the major supermarkets.’
More than a third (36 per cent) of Britain’s poultry farms have been affected by the crisis and some 1.6million birds had been culled by November 20.
Mr Kelly said the outbreak — the worst ever faced in the UK — had been ‘devastating’ for farmers.
He said: ‘The challenge for a lot of the smaller seasonal producers that produce Christmas poultry is they have their Christmas flock on their farm and when the turkeys are infected they all die within four days.
‘To give you an example, we had one farmer with 9,500 (birds). The first infection was on Thursday evening, 20 mortality, and by Monday lunchtime they were all dead.’
Mr Kelly said: ‘We’re a small business and we’ve lost £1.2million this year – just turkeys that have died.
‘Luckily we’re going to get through to next year but … can we take the risk to grow Christmas poultry based on what we’ve seen this year? We couldn’t. And had I known what I know now we would not have grown the turkeys we did.
‘Looking to next year, I don’t want to put the farm at risk.
‘Without a vaccine in place or a compensation scheme that is fit for purpose, I don’t know whether we’d have the confidence to grow Christmas poultry next year.’
Mr Griffiths added: ‘This year the seasonal producers have been so badly affected. I can see many of those taking a good hard look at whether they want to be in Christmas poultry.’
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