Backyard chicken suppliers halting services this year to avoid risk of avian flu

·3 min read
Down by the Bay Backyard Poultry owner Rebecca Cowans decided to stop hatching chicks to avoid endangering her animals. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Down by the Bay Backyard Poultry owner Rebecca Cowans decided to stop hatching chicks to avoid endangering her animals. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Some suppliers of backyard chickens on the Island aren't offering their services this year due to the spread of avian flu.

Down by the Bay Backyard Poultry owner Rebecca Cowans, who breeds and sells chicks in North Rustico, said pausing her business was the best decision to avoid endangering her livestock — two pet geese and heritage poultry she's worked with for five years.

"It is here and it's just a risk not worth taking," she said.

Avian flu is a viral bird disease that affects the respiratory, digestive and nervous systems of both wild and domestic birds.

The province called fecal material "the most important mode of bird-to-bird transmission" and said it is often how wild ducks introduce the virus into domestic flocks. There have been 19 confirmed cases found in bald eagles, crows, hawks, a raven and an owl in P.E.I. so far this year.

Cowans would normally put her newly hatched chicks in moveable tractors to transport them onto new grass daily, but the potential for contamination with infected wild bird feces is too great, as migratory birds continue to travel through the Maritimes in preparation for the summer.

It's why she's decided to stop hatching chicks this year.

'When they're gone, they're gone'

All cases of avian flu must be reported to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and its response to an outbreak includes the destruction of all infected and exposed animals.

Mark Cumby/CBC
Mark Cumby/CBC

For Cowans, one case of avian flu on her property could cost the euthanization of her pets and poultry.

"It's a big deal," she said.

"All of a sudden, everything that you have and all that you've worked for, for years and years and years … when they're gone, they're gone. You can't get that back. You can't get that work back."

Barnyard Organics in Freetown is another supplier that made the decision to stop operating its Hens for Rent program this year.

The program is a booming part of Sally Bernard's business that gives those on the Island the option to start their own backyard flock by renting hens and equipment anytime between May and October.

Last year, 75 hens with coops were rented out to customers and had a waiting list of people looking for another 60 hens.

She said there are people who have signed up from last year who already say they want to do it this year, but registrations have paused in light of the avian flu.

"If all of the hens anywhere, even one of mine, ended up contracting it, then all of the hens that have been associated with my farm would have to get tested and potentially destroyed," said Bernard.

"It's always hard to turn down customers, but we did what we had to do, I guess."

Elizabeth McMillan/CBC
Elizabeth McMillan/CBC

Cowans is taking as many precautions as she can despite the business being a hobby of hers.

She said she is doing things differently to eliminate opportunities of contamination by keeping bowls of water and food inside the coop while keeping the door closed.

"Nobody should be doing much with their birds," said Cowans.

"Because that's how it spreads, is through people sharing birds, sharing equipment and visiting each other's farms."

Any sick or dying wild birds should be reported to provincial fish and wildlife at 902-368-4683. Sick or dying domestic birds should be reported to a veterinarian.

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