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A fifth of wild cranes in Israel thought to be infected with fatal bird flu

Authorities expect to have to clear 25 to 30 tons of crane carcasses after H5N1 virus spread from northern moshav, where farmers failed to report poultry deaths on time

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

The carcass of a crane, infected by avian flu, at the Hula Valley Nature Reserve in northern Israel, on December 23, 2021. (Shlomit Shavit, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)
The carcass of a crane, infected by avian flu, at the Hula Valley Nature Reserve in northern Israel, on December 23, 2021. (Shlomit Shavit, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

One in five of the wild cranes living in or migrating through Israel have been infected with the fatal H5N1 bird flu virus, with authorities expecting to have to remove 25 to 30 tons of carcasses, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) said Thursday.

The virus is believed to have spread from Moshav Margaliot on the Lebanese border, where 244,000 laying hens were housed in 60 coops, supplying six million eggs monthly, out of the 200 million eggs Israelis consume each month.

According to the Agriculture Ministry, the farmers there failed to report in real-time the rising numbers of poultry deaths, leading to the virus spreading rapidly.

Many of the chickens were dead by the time ministry inspectors arrived, and the rest were culled. In one coop, only 70 chickens were found alive out of 2,000.

The farm has been sealed off, as well as facilities receiving eggs from it.

But on Thursday, the ministry reported that it was investigating someone from the moshav suspected of having tried to smuggle eggs out to sell them privately.

‏כשמדברים איתכם על שפעת העופות והמילה "השמדה" של מיליוני עופות עוברת לכם מעל הראש, כך זה במציאות, חנק בקצף שנמשך 9 דק',…

Posted by Tal Gilboa on Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Two days ago, the ministry also found the virus at a farm on Moshav Neot Golan, on the Golan Heights, where 17,000 turkeys were being raised in five coops. Those not already dead will also be culled.

As veterinarians continued to inspect coops throughout the north, the ministry warned consumers to buy eggs from reputable sources only, to check for stamps on the eggs by inspectors, and to cook eggs and poultry thoroughly before eating them.

This strain of bird flu can be transferred to humans, although the risk of serious illness is said to be low.

The INPA has called on the public to avoid any contact with wild birds or their excrement, and to report any sightings of sick or dead wild birds by calling its hotline on *3639.

Cranes at Hula Lake Reserve in the Hula Valley in northern Israel, on November 16, 2017. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

Around 100,000 cranes visit the Hula Valley in northern Israel annually, with some 40,000 staying in Israel until early March, when they join those returning from Africa to fly north to Europe and Asia to nest.

After touring the valley on Thursday, the INPA’s temporary director, Raya Shourky, said inspectors were checking the whole Hula Valley for evidence of the virus, and widening their search to water bodies in the Jezreel and Zevulun valleys, the Valley of Springs, and the Carmel Coast.

The greatest number of casualties seems to be in the Hula Valley Reserve, Shourky said, because cranes are so highly concentrated there. Regular feeding will continue, to stop them from moving elsewhere, she said.

The Hula Reserve has been closed to the public until Tuesday, at the earliest, and teams from the INPA, KKL-JNF Jewish National Fund, and Defense Ministry have been drafted to help clear the carcasses.

At a northern Israeli egg farm, chickens are living in cages above piles of their own excrement. (Screenshot)

Agriculture Minister Oded Forer described crowded chicken coops as “a ticking time bomb” that needed to be moved from communities to isolated breeding complexes with strict biological safety levels.

Plans to do so were approved by the government in 2007, but never implemented.

According to Agriculture Ministry figures, 93 percent of chicken coops meet neither the sanitation nor animal welfare requirements of the veterinary services.

While more than half of the European Union’s laying hens are now raised in cage-free coops, the figure for Israel is only 3.2%, according to Poultry Industry Council figures, with the rest crammed tightly into cages.

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