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Press Release April 2006

DEFRA slammed for 'winging it' on bird flu policy

The Animal Protection Agency (APA) - a national organisation that campaigns against the trade in wild animals as pets has criticised DEFRA's lax approach to both detecting and attempting to slow the spread of avian influenza. The Agency has been urging the Government since last October to rationally presume that the virus is present in the UK and to adopt appropriate measures.

Despite the chance discovery of a dead swan in Scotland infected with H5N1, free movement of captive birds (poultry, pet birds and pigeons) is still allowed. DEFRA has also side-stepped a European Commission-ordered ban on bird markets and gatherings. Until just last month, exotic birds could be legally imported from infected EU countries and taken straight to UK markets for sale to the public. DEFRA has now added a condition that birds imported from the EU cannot be exhibited or sold at bird gatherings within a month of import but have offered no clear enforcement plans.

Elaine Toland, Director of APA, says:
"DEFRA has so far adopted token measures with little scientific merit. It's obvious that the exclusion zone can be negated in a few flaps of a swan's wings. This swan slipped effortlessly through the net and shows how inadequate the Government's detection policy is. Although the Government has concentrated its efforts on migratory birds, this is merely one area of risk and the continued movement of birds for the trades in meat and exotic pets may easily have already introduced H5N1 to the UK undetected."

APA believes that the infected swan cannot be described as an 'isolated case' but more likely is just the 'tip of the iceberg'. The lengthy detection time for the dead swan means that scavenger birds and other animals will probably have filled their bellies on the corpse and in turn may be potential carriers of the virus.

Had the casual discovery of the swan not been made then the Government would still be claiming disease-free status and using this as a reason not to restrict movement and gatherings of live birds. Last November, DEFRA attempted to carry out individual risk assessments on exotic bird markets but found this too burdensome. Instead of abiding by the EU directive and scientific pragmatism, and disallowing events they could not properly assess, DEFRA instead issued a carte blanche licence for exotic bird traders and poultry sellers to resume their high risk market sales, no matter how dangerous and irresponsible.

Issued April 7, 2006