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Avian Influenza: Pigeons

Volume 470: debated on Thursday 10 January 2008

To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs if he will relax restrictions on pigeon flights arising from measures to combat avian influenza. (175287)

It is inappropriate to relax restrictions designed to mitigate the risks of introducing or spreading avian influenza in the face of uncertain evidence about the potential role that racing pigeons might play.

DEFRA’s Veterinary Risk Assessment takes account of all available evidence, including evidence that pigeons can be susceptible to this disease. In particular, a study by the European Food Safety Authority in 2006 concluded that pigeons may have the potential to act as a ‘bridging’ species between waterfowl and poultry. It is likely that the susceptibility of pigeons to avian influenza, and the clinical picture caused by infection, is strongly associated with genetic and biological variations between different strains of the virus.

There is research available which suggests that pigeons have limited susceptibility to some virus strains (mainly isolated some years ago), but other more recent publications1 suggest the contrary and demonstrate that recently isolated strains of HPAI H5N1 could infect pigeons. This later study indicates that pigeons may be asymptomatic carriers of avian influenza virus.

Pigeons could also spread AI mechanically through infective material on their feet and feathers, and there is potential, especially in long races, for pigeons to land and mingle with wild birds while still on the continent.

Pigeon races can still take place in the absence of avian influenza cases on the near continent. However, good biosecurity, record-keeping and notification requirements must be followed.

1 Yu et al, Emerging Infectious Diseases Vol. 13, No. 5, May 2007

To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs if he will consider the merits of taking steps to review the status of the Channel Islands in relation to restrictions on pigeon flights arising from measures to combat avian influenza. (175288)

Avian influenza can potentially be a fast spreading disease so it is important that we have robust measures in place to mitigate the risks. Therefore, we require any birds from outside the British Isles attending any type of bird gathering to first be resident in the British Isles for 28 days, to allow time for any clinical signs of disease to become evident. This mitigates the risk that birds might be infected when they enter the British Isles but are not yet showing clinical signs; that is, they are incubating the disease. When birds are gathered together it provides a high risk of dissemination of infectious disease should it be present.

The geographical position of the Channel Islands means they are closer to continental Europe than the UK mainland, making it illogical to treat the Islands differently from France. For these purposes the islands are considered to be part of continental Europe rather than the British Isles. We therefore do not permit birds from the Channel Islands to attend gatherings in the British Isles without first being in the British Isles for 28 days. We have no plans to change this requirement.