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A highly pathogenic avian influenza is in New Hampshire. Here’s what flock owners need to know.

UNH Extension

Usually, chicken farmer Jeremiah Vernon puts thousands of birds out to pasture over the summer at a property next to his Newfields farm. But as a highly pathogenic strain of bird flu moves through the United States, he’s had to change his plans, because officials say the virus can be spread by wild birds. There are lots of waterfowl on the land Vernon usually uses for his chickens.

“We just can't risk that. That's just too dangerous,” he said. “For the first time ever, we're not going to pasture our birds in the summer.”

The highly pathogenic avian influenza virus doesn't pose a big risk to human health, according to the Centers for Disease Control. But across the country, more than 22 million birds have been affected by the current outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza – or HPAI. It’s the worst outbreak of bird flu in the United States since 2015, and grocery prices for chicken have started to rise.

In New Hampshire, there’s only been one confirmed case of avian influenza in a domestic flock so far this spring, according to New Hampshire’s state veterinarian, Steve Crawford. Seeing this virus in the Granite State is a rarity – he said it’s the first case he’s seen in 17 years.

The virus has been found in wild birds in Strafford, Grafton, and Rockingham counties, with dozens of geese and mallards infected, but Crawford said the virus seems to be in the environment across much of the state. There have also been about 30 domestic cases confirmed across New England, he said.

And the impact of the virus on farmers and others raising chickens can be significant. When a bird tests positive, the whole flock has to be culled, Crawford said.

"Not an easy thing for anybody, for flock owners,” he said. “It's an awful thing for the people involved in having to put down birds."

Crawford is hopeful conditions will improve as summer comes, and the sun and warmth make it harder for the virus to spread.

Until then, he said, people with birds should keep chickens away from wild birds, wash their boots, clothing, and hands often, sanitize chicken care tools, and not invite other people over to their chicken coop.

For Jeremiah Vernon, many of those are precautions he’s taken for years. Usually he raises about 20,000 chickens a year, three quarters of those over the summer. Losing those chickens would have huge consequences for his business.

“Anxiety can be a motivating thing,” he said. “The fear of things going wrong is enough to make you take some precautionary steps.”

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.
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