Should I be worried about bird flu in Australia?

by Liz Beavis

Jump to the end if you just want a summary, or read the whole story about why we've bought more laying hens (read more here about things to consider when buying hens).

Pete and I have been keeping chickens for eggs (and occasionally meat) for over 10 years. We've usually had at least 10 hens and sometimes up to 30, and we've always had enough eggs to feed ourselves and usually extra to sell or give away. Lately our chicken numbers have dwindled to six hens and rooster, mainly due to natural attrition and then a fox got into our chicken mesh.

(Which is another story - the mesh had got old and compromised, the chickens had started getting out and the fox obviously figured out how to get in... and now I'm questioning the sustainability of using the feathernet / chicken mesh if it doesn't last and now I have a bunch of plastic and metal that can't be recycled or fixed)

The six remaining hens are all around 3-4 years old and have just moulted, so they are taking a break from laying over winter. (This is completely normal, read more about why hens stop laying over winter here.) This meant that we were buying eggs, and this is both expensive and confusing (are the free-range hens really free-range??).

We often hatch our own chicks, but this year we were too busy around spring time and we missed the opportunity, so we were trying to decide whether to buy more hens when we started hearing the news about bird flu. That was when we went out and bought six young laying hens to augment our flock and guarantee our egg supply once again. 

So, why were we worried about bird flu in Australia and should you be too?

Maybe…depending where you live and what you like to eat! 

There are currently two bird flu outbreaks to be aware of right now.

1) Globally, wild birds, poultry farms, some mammals and even people, are dealing with H5N1 outbreak. This has yet to affect birds in Australia, however a child has been infected in India and returned to Australia.

2) Meanwhile, a recent outbreak at egg farms in Victoria of a different H7 bird flu has led to hundreds of thousands of chickens being euthanised.

The two bird flu events are not related and are two different variants of bird flu. However, they do raise the question for Australian hobby farmers and homesteader. Should we be concerned about bird flu?

Bird flu - what's the current situation in Australia?

On 22 May 2024, high pathogenicity avian influenza H7N3 was detected on a poultry farm near Meredith, Victoria. On 24 May 2024, a second Victorian poultry farm near Terang was confirmed to have H7N9, due to Agriculture Victoria’s tracing activities. The properties are commercially linked and approximately 110km apart. (apparently they are linked, but different viruses?? I don't know either)

The Victorian Department of Agriculture has imposed housing restrictions, movement restrictions and quarantined the affected properties. If you live in the area, be aware of restrictions on moving your poultry and attending shows.

More information about the response here.

Bird flu - what's the situation globally?

Meanwhile, the global outbreak of H5N1 is more serious as it has been demonstrated to affect mammals, including dairy cows and humans.

To date, Australia and New Zealand have avoided H5N1. Australia has a nationally coordinated surveillance system for wild birds. This includes long-distance migratory birds such as shorebirds and seabirds. It seems amazing that it hasn't reached us yet, considering the amount of wild birds that have been affected globally. You can read more about it here.

Bird flu risks - if you own chickens

There is a risk that your chickens could become infected with bird flu from contact with wild birds, or through poor biosecurity practices. While the H5N1 virus is yet to reach Australia, it may arrive here through migratory birds. And we have an active outbreak of H7 virus in Victoria, which could spread further if not contained.
If the outbreak spreads to more poultry farms, the price of laying hens is likely to increase due to higher demand to restock the farms and increased costs to breeders due to biosecurity requirements.

How to keep your chicken safe from bird flu

If the global H5N1 outbreak reaches Australia or if the H7 outbreak spreads beyond the initial two farms affected, following good biosecurity practices will help to keep your backyard chickens safe. These are all sensible things to do anyway, to reduce the spread of disease within your flock:
  • Quarantine any new or sick birds
  • Wash your hands and take precautions when handling chickens, feathers or manure
  • Restrict wild birds from your chicken enclosures using mesh or shadecloth
  • Change water regularly (or use chicken nipples to ensure water is fresh)

Bird flu risks - if you don't own chickens 

The transmission of bird flu from birds or animals to humans is very rare. Most people are not at risk, unless they have contact with infected birds or animals. Occasionally, bird flu infection in humans can pass to another person with prolonged contact.

Bird flu is spread by close contact with an infected bird (dead or alive), e.g. handling infected birds, touching droppings or bedding, or killing/preparing infected poultry for cooking. You can't catch bird flu through eating fully cooked poultry or eggs, even in areas with an outbreak of bird flu.

The biggest concern, and the reason that we bought more hens, is the price of eggs and chicken meat may increase if the outbreak spreads to more poultry farms. These farms are huge and once bird flu is detected, they have to euthanise all of their birds, it takes time to then clean the facility and restock. This can have a massive impact on Australia's egg industry (and potentially chicken meat as well).

At this stage, its only two poultry farms, but its worth monitoring the situation and being aware.


TLDR: Bird flu in Australia - what do you need to know?

  • The risk of human infection is currently very low
  • Keep monitoring the situation and be aware that egg and chicken prices could increase if the outbreak spreads
  • Be prepared to implement biosecurity practices to keep your own chickens safe

What do you think? Are you worried about bird flu?

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