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Seòmar agus comataidhean

Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee [Draft]

Meeting date: Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Agenda: Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Bill, Avian Flu in Scotland, United Kingdom Subordinate Legislation


Contents


Avian Flu in Scotland

The Convener

Agenda item 2 is an evidence-taking session on avian flu in Scotland. We have scheduled an hour for this item, and I welcome to the meeting Sheila Voas, the chief veterinary officer, and Alastair Douglas, the head of the animal disease control branch, from the Scottish Government.

Would you like to make an opening statement, Sheila?

Sheila Voas (Scottish Government)

Yes. In terms of avian flu, this year has been unprecedented—and that is not a word that I use lightly. We said the same last year, but this year has been much worse.

This year, in Scotland, we have confirmed eight premises with avian flu; six were commercial premises and one was a very small commercial premises. I should put that into context by pointing out that 125 premises have been confirmed in England. As a result, although the situation in Scotland is bad, it is nowhere near as bad as the situation in other parts of Great Britain.

Avian flu is a viral disease of birds. It is similar to, but not the same as, the virus that causes flu in other species, including humans, and it is predominantly spread by wild birds. It gets into poultry flocks and has a devastating effect on them. If avian flu gets into a poultry flock, we require the compulsory slaughter of all the birds in the flock to prevent the disease from spreading further, either within poultry flocks or back into wild bird populations.

That is probably enough of an introduction. I am happy to answer any questions.

The Convener

Thank you.

It is important that we understand the seriousness of the outbreak in Scotland and the risk to Scottish producers. In previous weeks, we have heard evidence on the wild bird population and the devastating impact on, for example, goose numbers along the Solway Firth. What is the tie-up between the intensity of the disease in the wild bird population in Scotland and the potential knock-on effect on commercial flocks?

Sheila Voas

The disease is spread by wild birds, particularly water birds, which spend the summer in their Arctic breeding grounds where they mix with populations from other parts of the world. When they are in the Arctic, the viruses mix and can change, which means that, each year, there is a different strain.

The birds then come back to their overwintering grounds such as the Solway, the Angus basin or other parts of the country. Waterfowl can survive with the virus for a period of time, and they excrete the virus in their faeces, which can be picked up by poultry. The main route of incursion into poultry is generally contact—often indirect contact—with wild bird faeces.

We have heard of a mounting toll of geese and gulls in Findhorn Bay. Should we be concerned about that?

Sheila Voas

To an extent, yes. We monitor wild bird die-offs. We encourage members of the public to report, we have agreements with wardens and people in the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust and NatureScot works with us to ensure that we are notified of die-offs. When that happens, animals will be tested. Administratively, the season runs from 1 October and, so far, we have had 19 confirmed positive wild birds; however, that is about half the number of birds that have been submitted, so avian flu is not the only cause of death out there. It is a small number; in England and Wales, the figure is 300 plus. The figure here is a small percentage, but it is still of concern.

The Convener

You talked about the migration of birds. We know that Covid is worse in the winter and that the virus is supposed to decline in the summer, because of temperatures. Does avian flu have the same profile? Are we likely to see an increase in transmission of bird flu just because of the nature of the virus during winter or in the spring?

Sheila Voas

Yes, exactly. Flu viruses generally like cold and damp conditions, so they survive much better in the winter and will spread and remain infective for longer than in the summer, when ultraviolet sunshine, high temperatures and dryness—if we get a dry summer—kill them.

We normally say that the flu season runs from October through to about March. Last year was unusual in that we continued to get cases throughout the summer in GB; indeed, in Scotland, we had a case in Orkney in July.

That was helpful.

Good morning. What work have you been doing to gather evidence of farm-to-farm transfer of highly pathogenic avian influenza in Scotland?

Sheila Voas

We carry out full epidemiological investigations on every premises that is confirmed. The investigations can take a bit of time so, at the moment, the findings are preliminary, but there has been no evidence of farm-to-farm transfer.

Some of the cases that we were investigating involved a group of farms, so we were interested in seeing whether human farm-to-farm movements were the problem. However, it looks as though the explanation might be lapses in biosecurity, including buildings not being totally secured from rodents or wild birds.

Can you say a little bit more about that? Do you mean that there might have been lapses in biosecurity on farms that are part of one farm organisation?

Sheila Voas

Yes, they were within a farm cluster.

What I did not say previously is that, of the cases that we have had, five of the six commercial premises involved are under one ownership group, and all of the birds have been housed since early October. Only one of the six commercial premises was truly free range at the point of housing, while, in the other five premises, the virus found its way from the outside environment into the house where the birds were.

There is some evidence that less virus is needed to start and sustain an infection when birds are housed than when they are outside. Again, there are parallels with Covid, with which being outside—in a football stadium, say—was safer than being inside, in a dance hall.

Can you say a little bit more about the lapses in biosecurity that might have taken place on those five farms?

Sheila Voas

Yes. The preliminary epidemiology suggests that there was a rodent problem in some of the premises, that there were potential problems with vehicles going between farms and that the foot dips, cleansing and disinfectant points were not as effective as they could have been.

Do personnel move from one farm to another?

Sheila Voas

The staff who do the day-to-day care are dedicated, but there is some management movement.

Mercedes Villalba

I have a question about the effect of the disease on different types of birds. Is the virus equally lethal to wild birds and poultry? If it is more lethal to one than the other, is that to do with breeding, the birds’ immune systems or the use of antibiotics? Why does the virus have a different impact on different birds?

Sheila Voas

Because it is a viral disease, there is no use of antibiotics.

Different types of bird have different susceptibility to the virus. Waterfowl are generally the natural host for flu viruses, so they tend to be somewhat resistant to them. They get the virus and multiply it a bit, but they are still able to move and fly; turkeys, however, are at the other extreme, because they get pretty sick and die as soon as they get the virus.

One sign of avian flu in captive populations is a rapidly increasing mortality rate. In one case that we had, we went from five dead overnight to 19 dead, then 100 dead and then about 3,000 dead, all in the space of four or five days. That case involved chickens, though, not turkeys, but turkeys are even worse.

Alasdair Allan

I do not want to minimise the extent of the outbreak, given its impact, not least on wild birds, but can you say a wee bit more about that? Can you also say more about the comparison between—and the geographic concentration of—the outbreaks in Scotland and England?

Sheila Voas

It all started off in England with an outbreak in East Anglia, which is probably not surprising, given that the area has the highest poultry concentration in England. Since then, it has spread over much of England—although, interestingly, it has not spread much to Cumbria or Northumberland.

This year, in Scotland, we have had outbreaks in two backyard flocks in Orkney, a very small producer on Lewis with about 300 birds and one free-range flock in Ayrshire. The other five commercial flocks where there were outbreaks have been in Aberdeenshire, and those are the cases that are linked.

I have a map that shows the density of the outbreaks, which I am happy to pass around the table. It might be interesting to have a look at it. The figures are slightly out of date—they are from the end of last week—but the map demonstrates that there is very little comparison between Scotland and England.

Does the pattern of distribution in Scotland lend itself to making things harder or easier to control?

Sheila Voas

We have some clusters of poultry, particularly in the north-east and the Borders, but we do not have the same level of density of poultry populations elsewhere. Given that it does not spread from one premises to another, the single most important thing is that people maintain as good biosecurity as they can.

As a result of freedom of information requests, reports have been obtained of a number of culls. How many culls have there been in Scotland?

Sheila Voas

We have killed birds on all the infected premises—the total number across Scotland is 224,000. These are round numbers. To put that into context, I would point out that, in England, 1.673 million turkeys and 2.003 million chickens have been killed, as well as ducks and geese.

What is that as a percentage of the total flock in Scotland?

Sheila Voas

Oh, gosh—it is about 1 or 1.5 per cent.

How does that compare with the level in England?

Sheila Voas

In England, the figure is about 2.5 or 3 per cent.

So, England is not far in front of us. It is just that the density there is greater.

Sheila Voas

Well, the difference between 1.5 per cent and 3 per cent is significant.

As you have said, the density of the stock is greater in England.

To date, how many species have been infected with avian flu?

Sheila Voas

In Scotland, among commercial species, only poultry have been infected. Among wild birds, 20 to 25 species have been infected. The figure changes almost on a daily basis, because we are continually taking samples from wild birds and getting them analysed.

Rachael Hamilton

You said that, so far, Northumberland and Cumbria have not been affected. I have a question about how the disease spreads between wild and domestic birds. Why do you think that avian flu has not spread in those areas, which have coastal parts?

Robert Thompson of NFU Scotland has said that avian flu does not stop at the border; in fact, he said that it does not stop at Carlisle. I am sure, too, that you are familiar with what he has said about the need for Scotland to be put on an equal footing in terms of restrictions. However, a question will be asked about that later, so I will not ask it now. Why have there not been clusters in Northumberland and Cumbria, given the size of the wild bird population in those areas?

Sheila Voas

There are two different facets to that, one of which is to do with migratory patterns. Although we tend to think of the Arctic summer grounds for geese as being a soup for virus, the birds that come back to Scotland tend to come from Iceland, Greenland and Svalbard—in other words, the north-western part of the Arctic—whereas a lot of the birds that come into eastern England come from eastern Europe: Baltic countries such as Estonia and Latvia as well as Siberia. Therefore, there might be a difference in the virus that they are carrying.

There is also good evidence that some of the problems that are being experienced in England are being caused by virus that has survived over the summer. Last year, we did not have anywhere near the same number of problems that England had. The assumption is that the other part of the jigsaw is that there is simply less virus around in Scotland, even though we have substantial numbers of wild birds.

Can you clarify whether it is the same virus and which virus it is?

10:30  

Sheila Voas

It is H5N1. Flu viruses are classified according to their haemagglutinin in the H number and the N number. That gives a broad categorisation; like human flu viruses, however, these viruses are constantly adapting and evolving. In short, H5N1 is the broad type, but there can be lots of different changes.

We do genetic analysis and gene sequencing to understand pathways, how the disease transmits and how it adapts. That is why we are relatively comfortable with saying that some of what is happening in England is a spillover from last year instead of it all being new introductions this year.

Mercedes Villalba

Why are we seeing such different numbers in different parts of the UK? To what extent is that down to more effective biosecurity measures, the density of the population of birds or—and I do not know whether this applies in this case as it did with Covid—our being behind the curve, which means that it will be coming here, too?

Sheila Voas

We could certainly be behind the curve. We are continually monitoring what is happening so that, if we need to take further measures, we can.

As I have said, we have slightly different populations of overwintering waterfowl and a less high density of poultry in different areas of Scotland. The problems that we saw last summer were largely with seabirds, but they do not tend to interact and come inland; gannets, guillemots and cormorants are normally coastal birds that, in the winter, take themselves back out to sea again. Poultry do not tend to access shores, beaches or the Bass Rock, for instance.

There are a number of factors, and I do not think that any one, in particular, is responsible. It is possible that, in the next few weeks, the picture in Scotland will deteriorate, in which case we will need to take further action.

Alasdair Allan

We all accept that avian flu does not stop at political borders, but you are making persuasive arguments as to why the situation at the moment appears to be a bit different in Scotland than it is in the rest of the UK—or in England, anyway. How are you keeping in touch with colleagues in England to ensure that you have an advance picture of what might come to Scotland?

Sheila Voas

We have twice-weekly CVO stocktake meetings on a Monday and a Thursday morning as a matter of routine, at which we discuss new outbreaks and understand what is happening.

It is not so much that the disease is likely to spread from England to Scotland. Once the wildfowl reach their overwintering grounds, a cold snap will make them move again, and as it is very unlikely that England will be colder than we are, they will tend not to come north again. However, we are monitoring the weather further north. If it becomes very cold in Norway or Iceland, that might drive even more birds south to us, thereby increasing the risk.

The chances of disease spreading northwards from England are slim, though not impossible. However, we are continuing to talk about it. Indeed, it is because we communicate well and regularly that I know what is happening in England with gene sequencing and where the English think they have recrudescence of disease rather than new introductions from wild birds.

The Convener

You talked about the disease being worse in turkeys. Yesterday, at the Westminster hearing, we heard that there are about 8 million turkeys in the UK and about 50 per cent of the free-range turkeys—about 1 million birds—have died or been slaughtered. What is the picture like in Scotland? Do we have a large industry? I suppose that it does not matter whether it is large, because it would be devastating for the people involved in it. Do we have many outdoor flocks of turkeys and chickens that might be destined for the Christmas market?

Sheila Voas

We do not have many turkeys at all. We have a few tens of thousands. They tend to be seasonal producers—people who keep a few hundred turkeys for the local market in Scotland—unlike the commercial turkey production in England.

For the purposes of disease control,1.67 million turkeys have been slaughtered in England. In context, about 10 million turkeys would normally be slaughtered for the Christmas market—a proportion of which are slaughtered early in the year and frozen. Turkey may be scarcer, but I am not concerned that there will not be any turkey around this Christmas.

Karen Adam

I thank Sheila for her evidence, which has been helpful. In my constituency, Banffshire and Buchan Coast, avian flu has had a bad impact on coastal areas and seabirds, in particular. I visited Troup Head during the summer, where the impact has been devastating, particularly on the birds’ breeding patterns, which can affect the numbers of birds in the area for many years to come.

You said that it is very unlikely that coastal birds would be carrying avian flu to poultry farms. However, people in the area have been on high alert, as there has been a breakout. My constituents fear that and are very concerned about it. On their behalf, I ask what is the likelihood that avian flu will break out in poultry farms in the area and cause devastation? They are also wondering why there is no mandatory housing order. Could you explain why that is, to try to alleviate some of their fears?

Sheila Voas

I totally understand that your constituents and most poultry farmers are very worried about that. However, biosecurity is the single most important thing that people can focus on. Housing is one of the tools that we have in the box. We have not yet gone down the mandatory housing route, but that is not to say that we would not do that.

However, we need to offset that against the pattern that we are seeing and the evidence that housing may be a risk factor, because lower doses of avian flu can take hold and spread in birds that are housed in comparison to birds that are kept outside. I would not rule out mandatory housing, but it will depend on a whole number of factors such as birds’ migrating patterns, what wild birds we are seeing, what the outbreaks are and the epidemiological reports. For example, the outbreaks in the company that is in your part of the woods have all been in birds that have been housed. Those birds were voluntarily housed—they would normally have been free range—but they were brought inside and then picked up the disease a number of weeks later.

The single most important thing that we can do is communicate good biosecurity practices to those who are involved. Sometimes, it is the little things. For example, storing bales of bedding outside, where wild birds have access to them, and then taking those inside and removing the wrappers would spread whatever is on the top of those wrappers around. There are things that we can do before we go to housing, but that is not to say that housing would not come into it.

Rachael Hamilton

I have been asked to ask you what the basis is for the Government’s decision not to require mandatory housing at this time. However, I think that that is wrapped up in a whole load of other issues that relate to my curiosity about what is currently in place regarding the biosecurity measures that you are talking about. Have those measures been formalised in terms of zoning? Can you talk us through that and why you think that what is currently in place is sufficient in terms of what farmers are doing, considering what Karen Adam has just said? My colleague David Duguid has also been very concerned about what is happening in Aberdeenshire and, indeed, the prevalence of bird flu on the Moray Firth.

Sheila Voas

All the Administrations across the UK brought in an avian flu prevention zone in early October, which mandated that people must improve biosecurity. There is some good guidance about things that people can and should be doing in order to improve biosecurity and, importantly, how they can do that.

Colleagues in the Animal and Plant Health Agency have been offering advice to different groups who have contacted them. I, with Alastair Douglas and APHA, had a meeting with the company that has been badly infected, and we went through what we had found and explained where we thought the deficits were and what could be improved.

Biosecurity is certainly key. A number of years ago, the European Food Safety Authority carried out a risk assessment that demonstrated that biosecurity improved things by a factor of 44, while housing improved things by a factor of 2. Given that you might need less virus in housed birds to cause a problem, housing is the last issue to address. It gives added protection when everything else is right, but it will not, in itself, solve the problem.

There are difficulties with housing. We can require mandatory housing if we believe that it will improve the health of birds, but housing itself causes welfare problems, particularly in smaller and backyard flocks that are not set up to be kept inside. There is always a balance between those who have sheds that are used to house 30,000 to 40,000 birds and those who have 20,000 birds but have no way of keeping them inside.

Just to be clear, are the biosecurity measures exactly the same as those in England?

Sheila Voas

Yes.

And do they have steps?

Sheila Voas

No. Biosecurity is an interesting issue. Everybody should be practising the best biosecurity they can all the time, regardless of what is happening. The prevention zone is a way of mandating and encouraging people to think more carefully about what they are doing, but, in every case that we have seen, there have been significant biosecurity lapses.

I have one more small question—

It will have to be very small.

How does biosecurity work if there is interaction between wild and domestic birds?

Sheila Voas

Normally, you would not have that kind of direct interaction. Most poultry farms do not have geese and ducks on their ranges as a matter of course. If they do, there is always the option to house voluntarily, because they will not be able to keep them off.

Biosecurity measures will include bird scarers or using people, dogs or whatever to keep wild birds away from the ranges. The fact is that ranges are not huge; even a shed with 32,000 poultry is not particularly large, and a dog going round it a couple of times a day should, in most areas, be enough to keep the wild birds off.

Obviously, the risk is patchy. If you have a pond in the middle of your range—which we would strongly advise people either not to have or to fence off—it might be attractive to wild birds, which will therefore increase the risk. However, that is an individual risk for an individual farm, and the individual farmer can take mitigating actions in that respect. As the housing order would cover the whole of Scotland, there is a balance to bear in mind with regard to the number of cases, the epidemiology and what else can be done.

Do you have any indication of the number of farmers who are housing voluntarily and the number who have decided not to? What is the balance in that respect?

Sheila Voas

I cannot tell you exactly, but we believe that it is about 10 per cent.

So, 10 per cent are housing voluntarily.

Sheila Voas

Yes, but that is an estimate based on our talks with the egg marketing inspectors.

Okay. I call Mercedes Villalba.

Mercedes Villalba

You have said that, in some premises where the disease has been identified, biosecurity lapses have been identified, too. What steps are available to the Scottish Government to bring those premises up to standard? How are those premises being supported to improve their biosecurity?

10:45  

Sheila Voas

When we discover a lapse, we discuss it with the owner. However, by the time that avian flu is discovered, it is often too late to save that crop of birds. However, information is given for future years and about how the situation can be improved. We have also done communications with the industry generally, and colleagues in APHA and, indeed, the poultry marketing inspectors who work in my team will also offer advice on biosecurity during routine inspections, to try to get people to think more critically instead of just accepting what they have always done.

Jenni Minto

Thank you for your evidence, Sheila Voas. My question was on the housing criteria that you decide upon, and you have covered that in many of your responses so far. I am also interested in the combined meetings that you have with the chief veterinary officers from across Great Britain and in whether you use the same targets, balances or numbers in each of the criteria. Is that consistent across the nations?

Sheila Voas

It is relatively consistent, but it is not an absolute, because it is not the case that, if you get 12 outbreaks, you will house the birds or, if there is suddenly a cold snap, you will require something different. However, we talk about it, and there is an animal disease policy group—we are all members of it, including Alastair Douglas—which is where policy decisions are discussed across the UK.

That does not mean that we always come to the same policy decision, but it is a place for critical challenge so that, if England disagrees with what we are doing, it can challenge that and put forward an argument. Likewise, if I think that Wales has housed the birds too early, I can challenge them and ask for input on that. Therefore, it is partly about co-operation, but it is also about being a critical friend to each other. It can be quite lonely being a vet and not having too many people you can talk to, so it is also a sort of support group in which we can bounce ideas off each other.

You talked about migrating birds coming from eastern Europe and from further north—from Greenland and Iceland. What connections do you have with our critical friends in Europe?

Sheila Voas

We continue to monitor the pattern across Europe. The international disease monitoring group produces monthly reports, but it also carries out preliminary outbreak assessments for new things. That includes avian influenza, but the group also scans the horizon for foot-and-mouth disease, African swine fever and other diseases, so that gives us early warning of what is happening across Europe. From that, we can look at trade patterns, particularly for other diseases, to see whether that puts us at an increased risk.

We work with the Met Office to look at long-term weather, including wind direction, and we work with an ornithological expert panel to assess wild bird species—what the interactions are likely to be and where they are coming from—and we layer that into the information about which species we have seen with disease. Therefore, it is a bit of a spider’s web, which is why I cannot say, “This is the trigger.” There is an element of, “We will know.”

The other factor is that, in Scotland, our wild birds tend to hang around longer than elsewhere in GB, or the UK, so, potentially, at the other end of the season, we might want to keep measures in place for longer and it is important that we do not penalise our producers unnecessarily, because there is only a finite period during which housed birds can still be marketed as free range.

Jim Fairlie

It is nice to see you both. I have a supplementary question on what Jenni Minto just raised. I clearly remember the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in 2001 and the differences between the different countries. For me—I want your opinion on this—Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales having the independence to make their own decisions was important. I get the fact that cross-border collaboration and discussion happen all the time, but how important is it to be able to make such decisions independently in your own area?

Sheila Voas

It is important, because it allows us to fine-tune things to suit our local situation. Although a housing order is in place across the whole of England, Northumbria and Cumbria could have been excluded from that because the position there is not very different from that in Scotland. However, we are stuck with the jurisdictions that we have, and being able to look at things through a lens that says what is right for a particular area means that we can do the best for our producers, markets and consumers.

Jim Fairlie

That is exactly the point that I was making—you have hit the nail on the head. In 2001, Scotland had a complete national shutdown because of foot-and-mouth disease, which devastated the industry. I remember that clearly, and it was a living hell. However, in 2007 there was a much smaller outbreak that could be contained in pockets. Is having independence crucial in making such decisions?

Sheila Voas

Yes. Foot-and-mouth disease is very different from avian flu, however.

I understand that.

Sheila Voas

Foot-and-mouth disease spreads largely by animal movements. When we had the big outbreak in 2001, animal movements spread the disease around and we had pockets of it in Scotland. In 2007, it was contained to the south-east of England, which meant that we were able to make a case that Scotland should be treated differently. We were able to remove restrictions more quickly, starting with the islands and moving to the mainland. We also got back more quickly our ability to trade internationally.

The Convener

On the discussions that you have with CVOs from elsewhere, there is a call from some quarters for the Scottish Government to practise the precautionary principle. We have heard some of the reasons for that being about achieving a balance. What are the views of the CVOs from other areas of the UK? Do you deal with matters in isolation? You have said that you share information, but you make decisions individually.

Also, is there an ability to bring in housing orders only in certain areas within England or Scotland? For example, could you impose such an order for the north-east of Scotland and not for Dumfries and Galloway?

Sheila Voas

To take the second point first, yes we can. However, in the north-east of Scotland, all the flocks recently affected by avian flu have been housed ones. Had they all been free-range flocks that were out on their ranges, our decision might well have been different. We can make such orders differentially, but we still need evidence to enable us to do so.

Decision making comes down to the CVO in the individual country. However, my colleagues are supportive of the decision that we have made in Scotland. The justification in Northern Ireland was to consider the island of Ireland as being one group. In England, Christine Middlemiss was content, and they went with an order before everyone else. She was supportive of the fact that we did not have the evidence to justify doing the same here. Ultimately, I will advise the cabinet secretary and the decision for Scotland will be based on Scottish evidence, while factoring in what others are saying.

I guess that there are pros and cons to using either an individual or a UK-wide basis for decision making.

Sheila Voas

Yes, absolutely. Making a UK-wide decision is definitely easier: it avoids criticism and makes it simple for people to understand what they have to do. However, it is not necessarily the right thing to do. At the other end of the season, we could be in a position where we do not want to lift the order and then only Scottish eggs rather than those from across the whole of the UK would have to be marketed as barn eggs, for example.

Karen Adam

Hearing your evidence has been really helpful. Committee members are now a bit more familiar with, and have a better understanding of, viruses and precautionary measures such as washing our hands and wearing masks than might have been the case two or three years ago. How effective are such things? How precautionary are they? How much depends on communication with poultry farmers and their ability to carry out the measures?

Sheila Voas

The biosecurity gives a factor of 44 in improvement: that is, rather than have 45 flocks infected if there were absolutely no biosecurity, pristine biosecurity will take the number of infected flocks down to 1. That alone is really important. Of course, levels of biosecurity will put the number somewhere in between. Housing, in comparison, will stop one out of two, if it is done—so there is a real differential.

I am sorry—I have forgotten the second part of your question.

I was asking how much the effectiveness of the measures depends on communication and farmers carrying them out.

Sheila Voas

The approach is effective only if we can communicate effectively with the industry, because ultimately it is the people on the farms who need to practise the biosecurity and do all the different things.

APHA, which delivers for Scotland on the ground, has run webinars and so on for the industry to attend, and we have targeted particular companies. The egg marketing inspectors are talking about biosecurity when they go out. We are trying hard to reach producers, but ultimately it depends on the producer wanting to take measures and seeing the advantage of doing so, given that all the measures mean that things take a little longer than they do if someone just walks into a shed from outside in their ordinary wellies, without dipping the wellies or wearing a boiler suit and so on.

Karen Adam

That is helpful. As the local MSP, I want to ensure that that is communicated across the area as directly as possible and that farmers can be signposted to where they can get help and support to carry out measures.

Sheila Voas

I would not want anyone to go away thinking that I am blaming the company in your area. There have been biosecurity failings, but people were trying to do the right thing, as they saw it. It is important that we do not start slinging blame around. Failings should be regarded as an opportunity to help people to do things better in the future; we do not want to penalise them.

Absolutely.

I will bring in Alasdair Allan.

Alasdair Allan

To be honest, some of the questions that I was going to ask have been covered, but let me ask Sheila Voas to say something briefly about the effectiveness of different prevention measures. I am not asking you to set out a scale of effectiveness. However, you mentioned culls and other options. What are the other options, apart from housing?

Sheila Voas

Culling is the measure that we currently have. Vaccines are being developed, but up until now we have not been able to use vaccines, because that would have badly impacted on our ability to trade in poultry and poultry products.

Vaccines themselves—just like human flu vaccines—are not easy. The virus changes very quickly, so repeated vaccination is needed for different strains, or different permutations of the same strain. Also, birds need to get two injections, several weeks apart, which makes vaccination expensive. A broiler chicken—your average chicken—is slaughtered and on the table at five weeks old, so vaccination is just not practical. Work is going on to look at how vaccines can be developed and administered more easily.

The other difficulty with the current vaccines is that they are suppressive and not curative. Again, as with Covid vaccines and humans, they reduce the signs that the birds show and they reduce the amount of virus that the birds excrete, but they do not stop the virus. That is why trade becomes impacted: it is very difficult to differentiate between a bird that has been infected naturally and one that has been vaccinated.

Vaccination is on the horizon, but it is not yet ready to use, I am sad to say.

Thank you.

The Convener

If we started using vaccines, the disease status of the whole of the UK and Northern Ireland would be affected and there would be an impact on exports.

At the risk of going off on a tangent, there is a suggestion that, given the short lifespan of chickens for food production—I think that the longest is about four months—there is an opportunity to use gene editing to quickly bring in a type of chicken that is more resistant to avian flu. Have you looked at that?

11:00  

Sheila Voas

The Roslin institute is looking at susceptibility to flu viruses with the aim of breeding chickens that are more resistant. I would need to check where that research is at, but I do not think that it is in any way close to the commercial stage. However, it might be a possibility in the future.

Alasdair Allan asked about different prevention measures. In that regard, has anyone has actively looked for the HPAI virus in outflow water from infected poultry premises and in nearby aquatic environments?

Sheila Voas

I am not aware of that being done. I would need to check, because a lot of science is being done. I ask Alastair Douglas whether he is aware of anybody doing that.

Alastair Douglas (Scottish Government)

I am not, but I know that the FluMap project is potentially looking at some of the environmental factors as part of considering the wider impact on wild birds. We can look into that and get back to the committee.

Sheila Voas

FluMap involves a consortium of scientists who are looking particularly at avian influenza. We can come back to you with that information.

Ariane Burgess

That would be helpful. Thank you.

I am also interested in whether it is possible that wild birds might contract HPAI from infected poultry operations or infected released game birds. I understand that the virus is present in pheasants that are raised in France and that we bring pheasants to Scotland every year and then release them. Is it possible that that could be adding to the pressure of the virus in Scotland?

Sheila Voas

Theoretically, yes. This year, we did not actually import pheasants from France, because of the avian flu situation there. Pheasants are one of the species that are very susceptible to the virus so, generally, by the time that they get sick, they die very quickly afterwards. It would therefore be very surprising for someone not to know that there was virus in them. People are not allowed to release pheasants if the birds are not well and, equally, pheasants cannot be released in the zones surrounding infected premises. Therefore, no pheasants that have the virus should be released, but that is not to say that, once they are out in the environment, they might not succumb to virus that is already there and then potentially multiply it and spread it back. However, that would be an unusual situation.

You asked about spread from poultry premises to wild birds. The reason why, as soon as disease is suspected, birds must be shut inside and then culled and disposed of by incineration or rendering is to prevent a virus from getting back out into the environment in substantial quantities. I cannot say for certain that no virus could escape, but it should be a very small amount, and the general scientific consensus is that it would not significantly add to what is there in the background anyway.

You said that people are not allowed to release pheasants if the birds are carrying the virus and are sick. How is that monitored?

Sheila Voas

It is monitored only through the birds becoming sick and dying. Because they are so susceptible, there is no routine testing before they are released. If they were carrying the virus, they would be sick and it would be obvious.

You say that people are not allowed to release sick birds, but how do we track the behaviour of the people who have pheasants and their decision to release the birds or not?

Sheila Voas

As with many of the things that we do that could potentially be enforced by local authorities, the actual enforcement relies on people doing the right thing. In the same way, we rely on people within zones not moving, applying for a licence or doing other things. There is some enforcement, but I would be lying if I said that we go out and check all of them daily to make sure that they are still in pens.

We can be confident in saying that nobody is releasing sick pheasants, though.

Sheila Voas

Nobody is releasing pheasants at this time of year either—they are released in August or early September.

Jim Fairlie

Thank you very much for that, Sheila; the evidence that you have given today has been fantastic and hugely helpful. However, I now have about 10 different questions and I will probably not get through them all.

First, I have a constituent whose free-range birds are about six miles away from Loch Leven. He is agitated about having tens of thousands of geese flying across his range daily—they fly across his range to feeding grounds near where I live and back again at night. What can he do with regard to his biosecurity in order to protect his flock? Could he house his birds because of that circumstance, and would that cause him to lose his free range status?

Sheila Voas

There are a couple of questions there. The first one is about preventing the geese landing on his range. Geese mostly defecate from the ground, so the biggest risk is around birds landing, rather than from simply flying over—that is not to say that there is no risk from flying over, but it is much less. Things such as putting out bird scarers and bangers, using a cartridge gun and putting a dog around the range several times a day will stop geese landing and keep them away.

There are individual flocks for whom housing might be the right answer, however. Your constituent is at liberty to house his birds, but after a few days, he would indeed lose his free-range status. That said, the differential in price on the market between barn eggs and free-range eggs is not great at the moment, so whether a cost implication exists from his choosing to house would depend on the supermarket contract that he is tied into.

Thank you. Sorry—I was reading my notes as you were speaking.

Sheila Voas

That is okay. I was trying to think whether I should have answered anything else.

Jim Fairlie

No, that was ideal.

One thing concerns me as a former pigeon fancier. I used to send birds to France all the time, and the birds were vaccinated to do such flying even when I was a boy. Does the vaccine prevent racing pigeons from carrying viruses?

Sheila Voas

Racing pigeons are generally vaccinated against paramyxovirus, which is a different virus to avian flu—they are usually not vaccinated against the latter.

Right. It has been a while since I have raced pigeons.

Sheila Voas

They can still go to France and race. There was a problem with Brexit around that in that all lofts had to be registered. However, we now have a computer system called the pigeon loft, of all things—

Original.

Sheila Voas

Yes. People can register on the system, which allows the appropriate certification to be produced in order to let the pigeons go. If the pigeons were in a zone of about 10km around an infected premise, then they could not go, but other pigeons could.

Jim Fairlie

Okay. One other thing that slightly concerned me earlier is an issue that I was aware of although the implications had not really dawned on me. The vast majority of turkey producers in Scotland are small-scale producers and they will buy poults for finishing. Where do those poults come from?

Sheila Voas

They come from hatcheries in England, in particular, but they will have been in Scotland for long enough that we are comfortable with that. When a turkey flock goes down, if it is a breeding flock that is laying eggs that go on to be hatched, tracings of people and products from the infected premises—be that meat, eggs, poultry litter or feed lorries—are carried out. Eggs for hatching are traced back to the hatchery: if they were laid at a time when we thought the birds might have been infected, they are destroyed; if they were not laid at such a time and the biosecurity in the hatchery is good enough, they are allowed to move under licence. We are comfortable that we have not brought infection here, and our production is seasonal, so I would not expect turkey eggs or poults to come to Scotland until next summer.

Jim Fairlie

That is helpful.

Going back to the implications of imposing housing orders, a lot of the stuff that we are hearing just now is about a demand to get the birds housed. Your comment about a factor of 44 versus a factor of 2 was telling. The housing order was the thing that was going to protect the birds. As a livestock keeper myself, I know that biosecurity is always the thing that we have to worry about. It is important that we get across the message that personal biosecurity is far more important than the actual housing, given that, as you say, there is a factor of 44 as against a factor of 2. Are we getting that message across adequately?

Sheila Voas

We can always do better, and we are trying to get the message across, but some people are just so worried about it that they are not hearing the detail. It is slightly counterintuitive that, if a producer has birds out on a range where there might be wild birds, housing them is not as protective as getting rid of a rodent problem or stopping wild birds flying into the sheds.

We can always do better. We are trying hard to get the message out, and I would welcome any help from anybody who can help with that, because we can always do more. We are in regular discussion with Robert Thompson, Penny Middleton and others from NFUS, and I also speak to the British Poultry Council, the British Egg Industry Council and the British Free Range Egg Producers Association. In addition, we try to get the message out to backyard keepers, but they are by far the hardest group to get to, because there is no body that disseminates information to them.

Jim Fairlie

Okay. My final question is this. If the Government imposed a housing order, would that in itself protect the free range status? I will clarify my thinking here. If you do not mandate an order to house birds, but producers choose to house birds, they would lose their free range status after a few days. If you mandate producers to house the birds, would they maintain their free range status?

Sheila Voas

Yes—that is the key difference. If Government requires the housing of birds, free range status can be protected for 16 weeks. A laying hen usually has a lifespan of 60 or 70 weeks, so that is only a small part of it. For broiler crops that are finished within four to five weeks, a producer could potentially have two or three crops of birds that have never been outside and are still marketed as free range. Again, there is a balance to be struck. Housing is not the only answer, but there is a time and a place for it.

The problem, from the Government’s point of view, is that housing is not necessarily the thing that is going to stop the spread of the outbreak.

Sheila Voas

It is not; that is exactly the point. It is not a silver bullet to stop the spread of an outbreak, and it does not come without concerns about welfare. Birds that have been used to going outside and are suddenly cooped up will do a lot of feather pecking and damage themselves when they do not have the same free access.

I have forgotten what the third point was, but that is probably enough.

Yes, that is probably it.

For clarification, if there is a mandatory housing order, are you saying that the free range status would or would not change?

Sheila Voas

It would not change for 16 weeks, which is four months.

Okay, so there is an extension to what the period would be if the birds were voluntarily housed.

Sheila Voas

If producers voluntarily house birds, they can do so for a few days on the advice of their own vet, but they cannot house for a prolonged period and keep their status.

Thank you. That is a good clarification.

Beatrice Wishart

I have a very short question. When you are balancing the question of whether or not a housing order is appropriate, what weight do you put on the implications that it would have for producers and ultimately on the supply chain?

Sheila Voas

Ultimately, I make the decision on disease prevention, because that is what the legislation says. If Government requires housing to prevent disease, the status may be maintained. I cannot make a decision on anything else, but, of course, it is at the back of my mind. My heart goes out to producers at the moment; they are having a really horrible time not just with avian flu but with cost increases, contracts and other things.

Thank you.

11:15  

The Convener

I have a final question, which I hope you can answer. I understand that there has been an easement of marketing rules in England, and I think that there is a derogation that we will be dealing with on 14 December, which would allow the early slaughter and freezing of turkeys and geese, with those products being defrosted before being put on the shelves. We will be considering that, which is one intervention.

When it comes to compensation, at the moment, there are questions about whether the compensation rules around birds being slaughtered are satisfactory, and whether those payments should be made prior to a cull being carried out or afterwards to ease cash flows. We have also placed a lot of emphasis on biosecurity. Should there be support for businesses that need to put in additional biosecurity, in order to protect the national flock rather than just the individual businesses? Is that something that Government should be considering?

Sheila Voas

That is a really difficult one because the disease does not spread from one flock to another. The fact that your neighbour has gone down does not put you at significantly increased risk. Ultimately, biosecurity is something that people should be doing for themselves to protect their own birds, whether those are five birds in the back garden that you think of as pets or half a million birds. It is in the producer’s gift to do it, but it is also to his advantage.

On the point about freezing, that was an easement that was put in first in England to allow turkey producers, in particular, to slaughter early and market. The same is happening here for a prescribed period—I think from 28 November to 14 December—to ensure that turkeys are available. It is unlikely to have a major effect here due to the small production that we have.

On compensation, Scotland has always had a different compensation policy to England. In Scotland, we pay compensation at market value from the point at which I confirm disease. The market value is assessed by looking at the price paid for birds over the past couple of months and averaging it. We are actually in a better position in that regard.

By paying from the point of confirmation, which is the point at which the owner has no further control over their flock, we incentivise early reporting, because we do not pay for birds that have died before confirmation.

That is helpful. We have three very short supplementary questions. We have run out of time, but I will go to Mercedes, then to Rachael and then to Jim Fairlie.

My questions are on a new topic.

They need to be final, very short supplementaries.

Mercedes Villalba

Okay. My questions are on climate change. It has been said that climate change is bringing wildlife into closer proximity to human settlements, which increases the likelihood of diseases such as Covid-19 among human populations. I would be interested in hearing whether there is a similar increased risk with diseases that affect animals, such as avian flu.

Sheila Voas

The short answer is yes. Climate change is changing the patterns of migration, in particular, which means that we humans are now either coming into contact with species of animals that we would not have previously or we have longer contact with others. The particular concern is not avian flu, because it is particularly a disease of the cold and the wet, and climate change is likely to result in the temperature going up. Avian flu is not a good example, but diseases such as West Nile disease, which is spread by midges and mosquitoes, could have a range that extends further north as the climate warms up and habitats become suitable for other species.

What are the long-term measures or mitigations that the Government is looking at to make our animal populations more resilient to climate change?

That question opens a whole new can of worms that is not related to avian flu. I suggest that you to give us a very brief response, Sheila.

Sheila Voas

We are monitoring what is going on elsewhere in the world so that we have early warning. We can vaccinate against some of the diseases but do not routinely do so because they are not a problem here. Vaccination could be available and new vaccines are being developed all the time.

Was that brief enough?

If you thought that there was more that you could add, I am sure that the committee would welcome your writing to us to highlight some of the main concerns that you have.

Sheila Voas

There is probably not a lot else.

Rachael Hamilton

I have a question on the current biosecurity measures. You mentioned that whether somebody has five, 500 or 5,000 hens—whatever it might be—there are fines for not adhering to biosecurity measures such as vermin control. Is that correct?

As you said, the measures are successful only if everybody adheres to them. Is there any way of monitoring that? How is it monitored, even if avian flu is not prevalent in a particular region of Scotland? To whom does one report an incident of avian flu? Is it reported through the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs or is there a specific Scottish helpline?

Sheila Voas

No, it is a helpline that DEFRA administers for the whole of Great Britain.

Do you monitor that?

Sheila Voas

Yes. DEFRA records the data and arranges people to take samples but we get weekly reports from it on how many there are, where they are, what has come back positive and what has come back negative.

Are the numbers of reports higher than the numbers of cases that you have found? Are there a large number of reports from people who are worried about avian flu?

Sheila Voas

There are a larger number of reports than cases that have come back positive, because the reporting system is set up to advise us about the risk to poultry. Once we know that greylag geese on the Solway are positive, we will not sample more of them for a period of, usually, a couple of weeks because we know what the problem is there. Therefore, there will always be more reports than are sampled. The helpline is about sampling and understanding where the disease exists and in what species. It is not about collecting carcasses.

You can imagine that my next question was going to be about the time lag between the reporting and the result, but I will not ask that.

Sheila Voas

It is only a couple of days.

Sheila, you have been taken through the mill today. Hats off to you.

Has egg production in the country been affected by bird flu?

Sheila Voas

Yes, but not as much as it has been affected by price increases and people choosing not to restock when their egg-laying flock is depopulated. I do not have the Scottish figures, but I believe that the GB figures show that the number of hens on the ground is about 1.7 million down from where it was last year purely because people have chosen not to restock because they lose money on egg production. By comparison, avian flu has killed perhaps 1 million birds but a lot of the people whose flocks were affected are going back into production.

So, the reports that avian flu is causing the egg shortage are not entirely correct.

Sheila Voas

They are not wholly accurate. There is an effect from avian flu but it is not the primary problem. It is a contributing factor.

The primary problem is price to producer.

Sheila Voas

Yes.

This is a yes or no question. What role do local authorities have as public health bodies? Do they have a role in inspecting, or where does that role fall?

Sheila Voas

Yes, they do. The response to avian flu is a partnership between lots of different bodies. The local authorities are the enforcement agency but, when there is an outbreak, they also help with foot patrols because—I did not say this—we do foot patrols around infected premises to find out what other poultry are there and ensure that it is healthy. That is one of the roles that local authorities take on but enforcement is their main role.

Do you have any concerns about the capacity within local authorities to carry out those requirements?

Sheila Voas

Our experience is that local authorities are prioritising the work, but they are always telling us that resource is stretched and they have to do it at the expense of something else.

The Convener

Sheila, you mentioned that there might be issues with getting the message out. I suggest that, given the considerable interest that there is in avian flu, your contributions at the meeting will have assisted in doing that. Thank you very much for your detailed and fascinating evidence. We all appreciate it, and I am sure that the wider community will do as well.

Sheila Voas

Thank you all.