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Grim cleanup of cranes that died of bird flu begins in Hula Valley Reserve

Agriculture Ministry appeals to residents of northern moshav at epicenter of H5N1 outbreak to keep stray cats — potential carriers of virus — from wandering around poultry sheds

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

Gathering the carcasses of wild cranes killed by avian flu at the Hula Lake Nature Reserve in northern Israel, December 27. (Hadas Kahaner, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)
Gathering the carcasses of wild cranes killed by avian flu at the Hula Lake Nature Reserve in northern Israel, December 27. (Hadas Kahaner, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

Staff from the Israel Nature and Parks Authority have begun the grim job of collecting crane carcasses in the Hula Lake Reserve in northern Israel, where some 5,000 dead birds have been counted during the worst outbreak of bird flu ever to hit the country’s wild bird population.

The Agriculture Ministry has not yet managed to pinpoint how the highly contagious viral disease H5N1 got into the reserve, which attracts tens of thousands of cranes during the spring and summer migration seasons, particularly as food is distributed there to keep the birds away from commercial crop fields.

Authorities are expected to reassess the policy of concentrating the birds in this fashion.

Bird flu, which is fatal for birds and can also infect cats as well as humans (though it rarely causes serious illness in people), is rampaging through Moshav Margaliot on the Lebanese border, where more than half a million egg-laying chickens have either died or been culled.

All the poultry sheds are infected and have been sealed off by inspectors.

On Tuesday, the ministry’s veterinary services wrote to moshav residents warning that stray cats were seen wandering in and out of the coops and noting that 15 cats had caught the disease during the last avian flu outbreak there in 2012.

Aerial view of the chicken coops at Moshav Margaliot in northern Israel. (Google Earth)

The first outbreak this fall was at Moshav Nahalal in the Jezreel Valley, according to a notice sent out to poultry breeders on October 18 by the ministry’s veterinary service. Noting that avian flu was sometimes often carried by wild birds — Israel sits on the annual migration route between Europe, Asia, and Africa — it called for the immediate transfer of all organic, free-range, and other outdoor chickens to closed facilities.

By November 3, the virus was also found at Kibbutz Maayan Zvi, near Zichron Yaakov, and as of November 21, it had spread to a duck farm in Kfar Baruch in the Jezreel Valley and a turkey farm in Ein Zurim, south of Kiryat Malachi in southern Israel.

Gathering the carcasses of wild cranes killed by avian flu at the Hula Lake Nature Reserve in northern Israel, December 27. (Hadas Kahaner, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

The disease has mainly affected laying hens, and this time to an unprecedented degree, according to the ministry.

Among wild birds, the disease has spread further into the Hula Valley, beyond the lake reserve, to the Jezreel Valley (Moshav Balfouria, Moshav Hayogev, Kibbutz Ramat David) and central Israel’s Hefer Valley, where a diseased pelican was found at Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon. Samples of dead birds from Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin in the Beit She’an Valley in the east of the country are still being analyzed.

Gathering the carcasses of wild cranes killed by avian flu at the Hula Lake Nature Reserve in northern Israel, December 27. (Hadas Kahaner, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

The World Organization for Animal Health reported on November 10 that 41 countries, in Asia (11), Europe (21), and Africa (9), had reported avian influenza in wild birds and domestic poultry since May 1, with the H5N1 variant occurring frequently.

An Agriculture Ministry spokeswoman said that Israel was an active member of the organization and that the veterinary services were in constant contact with their peers in Europe, contributing and receiving information and updates.

OIE records show that Israel had reported bird flu as early as October.

The spokesman said that every spring and fall, but especially in fall, inspections increase and poultry farmers are instructed to transfer birds from open areas into closed coops.

An Israeli egg farm (Channel 10 screenshot)

If an outbreak is reported, inspectors are sent to check the site and all other coops within a 10-kilometer (six mile) radius.

“We knew about the outbreak in Europe at the end of September. What we didn’t expect was the intensity,” the spokesman added, noting that the disease had never infected so many laying hens in Israel before.

While instructions were sent to all poultry breeders on how to behave during outbreaks, it was the chicken farmers and their local vets who were charged with reporting unusual incidents of sickness or death and sending samples to the veterinary services.

Some farmers from Moshav Margaliot apparently failed to report in real-time, and one is still being investigated by the ministry on suspicion that he tried to smuggle eggs out to sell them after the virus had been discovered.

It was impossible, the spokeswoman said, for the dozens of inspectors employed by the ministry and the regional poultry breeder associations to be at thousands of coops all the time.

Filthy conditions at a northern Israeli egg farm, where chickens live in cages above piles of their excrement. (Screenshot)

That the virus is spreading so quickly is largely to do with the widespread use of primitive old coops by farmers still operating by the standards of the 1950s.

Agriculture Ministry officials recently told the Knesset that a review has shown 93% 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.

Even before the outbreak, Agriculture Minister Oded Forer set a priority of replacing backyard coops with modern, closed, factory-sized facilities that are automated and located some distance from homes.

An automated, cageless egg-laying shed. (Screenshot)

A government decision in 2007 to carry this out was never implemented.

Government funding to replace the old coops — with incentives not to cage the birds — will form part of a wide-ranging reform of the egg industry being negotiated by the ministry with the farmers.

The farmers are up in arms over proposals to remove quotas for egg production and to open the industry up to local and international competition.

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