It's that sign again. Another proclamation from The Ministry.
The poor chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys have now been confined in the stables for longer than I can remember. Supposedly this is to protect them from catching bird flu which is occurring at a higher rate than usual in wild birds.
The Prevention Order was originally issued in early December, then extended until the end of February. Communication from The Ministry was poor and haphazard at best and the wording ambiguous.
Cases of bird flu have continued in the wild and on poultry farms, despite the precautions, so there was never much hope of the order being lifted at the end of February. After all, the wild ducks and gulls which visit us in cold weather would not have returned to the continent yet.
There are several big problems if the incarceration continues after 28th February. Firstly, free range producers lose their free range status.
For us here at Swallow Farm, the geese and turkeys will be laying soon but without sufficient space it is very unlikely they will manage to rear any young. That will be two of our big meat sources gone. On top of this, the geese will be getting much more territorial soon and we just don't have enough space for two protective ganders and five broody geese.
And so we got another announcement a couple of days ago. At least they are giving us time to plan this time. The country has been split into High Risk Areas and the rest. In the High Risk Areas, the housing order will, unless there are significant changes, remain in place until at least the end of April.
These HRAs seem to generally be within 10km of the coast or to follow the main rivers and Washes. Unfortunately for many of our friends, the marshes around The Wash and the flood areas around the Nene Washes and Ouse Washes remain High Risk.
Fortunately for us we do not fall into one of these areas, which means that in theory our birds can go out in 18 days time. But it is not that straightforward. Some of the looser wording of earlier orders has been tightened up and there are hoops to jump through, which is why we have been given some time to prepare the ground, quite literally. We will have to take biosecurity even more seriously.
Good news for some of our poultry.
Being outside the High Risk Areas does at least give us some options.
Overall the chickens have settled in to 'barn life', though I'm sure they will eventually be happy to get outside and enjoy their natural surroundings and behaviour. The ducks are faring quite well, though they would definitely be much happier outside.
The turkeys and the geese have learned to co-exist, but I get the distinct impression there has been quite some strutting to establish a pecking order. But these are messy. They crap everywhere and spill their water as soon as it is topped up. I have to move in slow motion in the stable to avoid panicking them too.
The geese will be laying very soon and will need enough space to make dry nests. The old turkey hen laid outside last year and won't be able to find anywhere to sit on eggs within the cramped stables.
On top of all this, the ewes will need the middle stable from mid-March.
The size of protective netting for outside has changed from small enough to keep out all birds and their droppings (totally unrealistic) to 50mm mesh so that snow does not bring everything down. This means that we should be able to give the turkeys their own small outdoor range, along with the Ixworth trio who are currently living in a very small coop. We have to risk assess the land, remove standing water and take every measure we can to keep wild birds out of the area.
The geese will move into the smaller stable but will be given access to the wide central path down the land. This will give them fresh grass, fresh air and room to spread their wings. We should be able to arrange it so their water is not in the same stable as the nests they will build, so hopefully we can still get a few goslings.
As for the chickens, the meat birds will be going very, very soon. This will release one small stable. Our plans to start incubating more Ixworth hens are up the swanney as, for the moment at least, the last thing we need is more poultry to house.
Priscilla (daughter of Elvis) has been living with her two chicks in another small coop, but the male chick is now 24 weeks old so we will be 'waving goodbye' to him too. Priscilla and her young hen will come up to the stables, where all the laying hens will move in to the larger stable vacated by the geese.
We will try to come up with a plan to let them outside, if only for short periods in a very limited area.
So that is the immediate future for our poultry. Let's hope things improve soon.