On May 11, Hilary Benesh received the correspondence she was dreading – a call from the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture that the H5N1 virus (avian flu) had been detected in a neighboring farm.
“Everyone within a 12-kilometre radius was given notice,” said Benesh, of the Cat and Crow Farm in Comox.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) said in a release the H5N1 virus has now been found in seven small flocks across the province, presumably through contact with infected migrating wild birds. Owners of small or backyard flocks are urged to continue to be vigilant and have appropriate preventative measures in place.
The Cat and Crow is considered a small flock operation.
“As a small flock, we are allowed to have up to 400 chickens,” said Benesh. “We are registered with BC Egg and that’s how we got the notification.”
Benesh said the Cat and Crow has been taking proactive measures, but was hopeful those restrictions would be eased this week. With the announcement of a detection on the Island, those measures will now stay in place until at least next month.
“We’ve had our chickens on lockdown for about a month now, and we were looking forward to releasing them again in three days, when the notice was lifted, but it has been extended now until June 13.”
She said her chickens have shown no signs of the virus. Symptoms include a drop in egg production, sudden fatality, swelling around the face, diarrhea, and huddled, depressed behaviour.
“Basically all the symptoms you would expect of a sick bird,” said Benesh. “We collect our eggs every day so we will know immediately if our egg production drops. So we are monitoring every day and so far, so good for us. We are lucky.”
Benesh said there have been some residual cost increases associated with the measures the Cat and Crow farm has taken to prevent the disease from hitting the flock.
“So far our chickens are still laying, and we are lucky, because we can move them everyday onto fresh pasture, so they still get to forage around and have access to fresh grass everyday,” she said. “But now that we have to move them every day, we have to rent a tractor to help pull the chicken tractor, which is about $80 per hour.”
The ‘chicken tractor’ is like a massive portable greenhouse, with a roof, and nesting boxes. It can hold about 400 chickens.
Benesh said although she is taking all the precautions she can, it’s still unsettling.
“It’s very concerning. We have spent the last three years building up our client base around our egg delivery and our business, our farm, and there was a lot of money that went into the infrastructure for all that. We are supposed to get some new chickens in June, from a producer, but that is probably not going to happen now.”
Benesh said the bigger picture, beyond the concerns for her own farm, is of greater concern.
“The scariest thing of all is what is going to happen to the egg and poultry industry… if no one can sell eggs, and no one can get chickens that lay eggs, or meat birds in for poultry, it’s going to disrupt the whole industry. A lot of people don’t look at the bigger picture of what it is going to do to Canada if this keeps going. So that concerns me a lot.”
According to the CFIA website, avian flu is not a food safety concern, and “there is no evidence to suggest that eating cooked poultry or eggs could transmit HPAI to humans.”
Last month, the Ministry of Agriculture and Food identified “a premises of concern” in the Cowichan Valley with respect to avian flu, but the ministry confirmed to Black Press on Thursday, May 12 that the Cowichan Valley alert proved not to be H5N1.
The May 11 identification is the first detection of avian flu on Vancouver Island.