Katie Thear looks at the issues surrounding keeping poultry indoors in the light of the risk of avian flu

Conditions in the depths of winter are usually at odds with the welfare of poultry. Mud, cold winds, snow or freezing temperatures are things to avoid if they’re to be contented and productive. With the threat of avian influenza being introduced and spread by migratory birds, let’s look at the practicalities of keeping poultry indoors.Coping with severe weather conditionsIn severe weather most poultry are better housed regardless of any avian influenza threat. The possible exception is domestic ducks and geese that are well adapted for low temperatures (although they dislike draughts and high winds) but housing for poultry needs to be well insulated.Smooth white insulation panels can be attached to the internal roof and walls of a house. These are easy to clean, provide no hiding places for red mites and also help to increase light levels for winter egg production. If they’re to be permanent additions, rather than those that are removed in the spring, any gaps or cracks between them and the original wall will need to be filled with sealant otherwise there will be red mite hiding places left.The birds themselves will provide the necessary warmth, as long as there are enough of them in the house. What the insulation does is prevent its undue loss. A badly insulated house will lose around 35% of the heat through the roof, with about 25% loss as a result of draughts in the house. For the technically minded, a poultry house roof needs to be insulated to the following value: U = 0.5W/m/OC.

Black plastic sheeting with bubble-plastic sandwiched between them can be used to cover the outside walls and roof, as long as windows and ventilation points are kept clear. Such sheets are widely available in larger garden centres. Dark plastic is preferable to clear because it absorbs rather than reflects any winter sunshine. In areas of high winds it may be wise to put a rope over the roof and tether it securely on either side of the house.If there is heavy snow, remember to clear it away from the ventilation areas of the house. Lack of ventilation can lead to lung infections and other problems. Brushing fresh snow away from the area immediately outside the house and in scratching areas is also a good idea. Once it freezes, it’s more difficult to clear.Breeds with large combs and wattles, such as Minorcas, Leghorns and Andalusians, should have a little Vaseline rubbed into these areas to protect against frostbite. Breeds with feathered legs, such as Cochins and Pekins, may in theory have warm legs, but if they get wet it’s a different story.All poultry need extra calories to cope with winter conditions. This can be layer’s pellets or grain, but grain is cheaper. While there are fears of avian influenza, all feeding should take place inside.

Keeping water from freezing can be difficult in winter, but if the drinker is in the house, it’s less likely to freeze. Outside pipes and taps can also be lagged and have heating cables wound around them if there’s access to an electricity supply.If there are any signs of rodents, contact the local authority’s Environmental Health Department to arrange a visit from a Pest Control Officer. Alternatively, put down rat poison in protected areas such as inside sections of drainpipe where birds can’t gain access.Finally, remember to hang up bunches of garden greens and compressed seed blocks at head height. In confined areas there is an increased risk of feather pecking and the provision of these provides interest and diversion.Housing against bird flu

Victoria Roberts has already written on avian influenza, so I shall concentrate on the practicalities of keeping poultry inside, if it becomes mandatory, rather than duplicating what she had to say.Defra’s bio-security guidelines provide general advice on what and what not to do, without giving much practical information on how to implement it. The key factors are to keep wild birds away from poultry, their feed and their ranging area, as well as to provide clean conditions, food and water. New birds should only come from sources whose health status is known, with a period of quarantine being followed after their introduction.Having said that, I was shocked to see on a recent walk through local woods, that there were game pheasants running about all over the place, with outside feeding stations provided for them. Wild birds were also enjoying the spilt food. I know that pheasants aren’t officially classified as poultry but they’re just as susceptible to avian influenza. Perhaps Defra ought to extend their guidelines to the shooters as well as to poultry keepers.There’s only one way to keep wild birds away from poultry and that’s by using physical barriers. A house in which they can be confined is one thing, but how can you provide a protected ranging area as well? Let’s look at the possibilities!Small moveable houses

Small houses may include a built-in run or have one placed next to it. They’re designed for moving regularly to new areas of grass but how can you be sure that wild birds haven’t already used the grass? There’s no guarantee of this, of course, although keeping the feeder inside the house and not providing grain outside is less of an incentive for wild birds to come. Any muddy areas of grass, especially where water has collected in pools, are to be avoided because they’re potential reservoirs of disease. If there’s no clean, mud-free area it’s much better to place the house and run on concrete or flagstones for the period in which poultry need to be confined.Flagstones can be put down as a temporary base, leaving small drainage cracks between them. Make sure the cracks are narrow enough to exclude rodents! A house with attached covered run can then be placed on the flagstoned area. If there’s no attached run, make a temporary one that can be placed next to the house pop-hole. You can buy separate runs from poultry housing suppliers. An open run should be covered with fine horticultural netting so that wild birds can’t get in.Part of the run can be roofed or covered with a waterproof material so that a dry scratching area of fine sand or wood shavings is available. A garden shed In all probability, a garden shed will already be on hard standing. It’s easy to put some flagstones in front of the door to make an outside run for the poultry. Remember to put some fine-gauged wire netting around the base of the shed so that rats don’t find a refuge underneath. A run as referred to above can then be placed in front of the door, although it means having to enter the run to open and close the shed door. An alternative is to make a pop-hole at the other end or at the side of the shed. The run should be covered as detailed earlier.A layer of thick plastic with wood shavings or sawdust will protect the shed floor and provide the poultry with a scratching area. The window can be left partially open but covered with metal mesh so there’s ventilation.Feather-legged Pekins and Booted bantams will tend to sleep on the ground rather than perch, but other breeds will require a perch. Sometimes they’re quite happy to sleep on an existing shelf, but the ideal is a perch that is 4-5cm wide and placed about 60cm from the ground. Really big and heavy birds may require perches at 30cm from the ground. If more than one perch is required they can be stepped, as long as there’s a horizontal distance of 40cm and a vertical distance of 40cm between them. The perches should be below the level of the window so that the birds aren’t in a draught.Layers will need nest boxes which can be boxes placed on their sides with wood shavings or sawdust as liners. Alternatively, freestanding or rollaway nest boxes can be bought from specialist suppliers. It’s normally fairly easy to fit a lighting system in a garden shed, for extra light for winter eggs. There are mains electricity and 12-volt systems with automatic controls available.Barns and outbuildings Barns and farm outbuildings are also easily adapted for poultry, including chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys and Guinea fowl. Again they need good ventilation and a well-covered floor. High-pitched roofs may need to have a false ceiling put in to avoid too much heat loss. In its simplest form, this could even be plastic sheeting, as long as it’s well secured at the sides. If condensation forms on it, it’s a sure sign there isn’t enough ventilation. Windows should be open and covered with wire mesh.Open-sided barns will need to have wire mesh walls provided, with straw bales acting as wind breaks placed against them. Leave the top area as wire mesh only for ventilation.Straw bales stacked at various heights also provide acceptable perching areas for chickens, turkeys and guinea fowl. If the latter have been used to perching in trees, provide them with a few solid branches placed in such as a way as to be secure and stable. Feeders and drinkers are best placed above slats to avoid damp areas. Any damp litter should be removed and replaced. Raking the floor litter on a regular basis is also recommended as it introduces air and avoids matting. It goes without saying that all feeders and drinkers should also be cleaned regularly.As mentioned earlier, freestanding or rollaway nestboxes are available from specialist poultry equipment suppliers. If an outdoor scratching area is also to be provided, it’s a good idea to erect some kind of verandah over the exit of the building and to put up netting over the ranging area. This may need to be a more restricted area than the birds are used to – it’s not a practicable proposition to cover a large expanse. If it does become necessary to confine poultry, however, hopefully it won’t be for too long.Where free-range and organic producers are concerned, flocks can be kept indoors for up to 12 weeks without losing their status.Polytunnels An ordinary clear polytunnel is suitable as a winter house for hardy waterfowl that are well endowed with down feathers under their waterproof outer plumage. It doesn’t need to be insulated but should be very well ventilated. If necessary, mesh ventilation panels can be inserted in the walls. Small polytunnels usually have enough fresh air by having a door at each end. An open-air run covered with netting can be erected outside at one end, to allow the waterfowl outside access without allowing wild birds to come in.Waterfowl need access to splashing water and a way to provide this without ending up with a quagmire is to have a raised slatted area at one end of the house. A shallow rigid plastic pond, such as the one sold by the Domestic Fowl Trust, can then be placed on the slats. There is an inflow connection that can be connected to a hosepipe coming in from one side, and an outflow that can be directed out to the other side, to a ditch or other draining area that the waterfowl (or wild birds) can’t get to. A regular through-flow ensures that clean water is available to the ducks and geese on a regular basis.Polytunnels aren’t generally suitable for other poultry in winter, unless they’re very well insulated. Clear polytunnels aren’t suitable for any poultry in summer because they become too hot in glaring sunshine.Geese are of course, grass eaters, but grass or lucerne pellets are available as a temporary substitute for their normal grass ranging. They will also eat grain. I should stress that all poultry should have access to insoluble poultry grit for the proper digestion of grains. Aviaries An aviary is a ready-made sanctuary for birds that need to be confined for a time, for the roof is already in position. The drawback is that it’s generally designed for flying birds so it has more vertical space than floor space. However, a small number of ground poultry can be housed for a time. Guinea fowl will be in their element with high branches to explore, and peafowl too will have sufficient room to perch. Both these species can also be housed in any barn, shed or outbuilding, as long as there is sufficient height.If the aviary mesh is a fairly wide gauge it might be necessary to cover it with finer gauge to exclude smaller birds like sparrows. Stocking densityRemember that while birds are confined, an appropriate amount of floor space should be provided for them. While they’re outside in covered runs it may not be possible to provide the space that they need there to meet free-range or organic requirements. In fact, those with very large flocks wouldn’t have a hope of doing so. Those with small flocks are in a better position to do so because less covered run area is required in relation to the number of birds in a small house. DroppingsWhile poultry are kept inside, the amount of droppings will be far greater than where there is unrestricted access to the outside. They will tend to be under the perches, so having a droppings board or slatted area underneath will help keep the area clean. I’ve already mentioned the importance of raking and replacing damp areas of litter. Used litter and droppings should be removed regularly but stored safely. The best method is to place them in a secure compost heap well away from the poultry. After adding droppings to the compost heap, sprinkle on some lime with a layer of soil on top. Finally, cover the heap so no wild birds have access. So, with some preparation and planning, poultry can be safely inside away from the worst of winter, and away from the threat of avian influenza if it rears its ugly head.

Further information

For ongoing information on avian flu:Defra helpline: 01224 711 072. www.defra.gov.uk World Health Organisation: www.who.intFor free-standing and rollaway nest boxes:Patchett Engineering. Tel: 01274 882 333.NFP. Tel: 01531 631 020.Solway Feeders Ltd. Tel: 01557 500 253For moveable waterfowl ponds:The Domestic Fowl Trust. Tel: 01386 833 083.For lighting systems:Rooster-Booster. Tel: 01963 34279

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