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Augusta Co. Residents Fighting for Backyard Chickens

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AUGUSTA COUNTY, Va. (WVIR) - Some people in Augusta County are fighting for the right to have backyard chickens with pamphlets and a petition. They are meeting some resistance from officials, though.

Theresa Rosenthal is heading up the campaign to make backyard chickens legal for the people who live in neighborhoods in the county.

“I feel like we have a right to have backyard chickens,” Rosenthal said. “They're not harmful. They're not loud. They're not dangerous, and they're for food security.”

However, the Augusta Co. Planning Commission disagrees: Last week they voted unanimously against an ordinance that would allow four cooped hens in the backyards of residential zoned properties.

Kitra Shiflett has served on the county planning commission for 18 years. She says people have expectations when they live in subdivisions.

“If people want to have chickens, which is fine, they need to go to agricultural zoning,” Shiflett said.

Many cities across Virginia have backyard hens; Richmond, Norfolk, Charlottesville, Harrisonburg. Backyard chickens have been legal in Waynesboro for more than 50 years.

“I've been the animal control officer in Waynesboro for almost 12 years, and I have not any issue what-so-ever referenced to so-called backyard chickens,” said Dee Price with Waynesboro Police Department's Animal Control Unit.

Shiflett is also a chicken producer. She says the planning commission is worried about avian influenza.

“Anything that puts that industry at risk is a concern to the growers, and those 42,000 plus people that work in the industry,” Shiflett said.

Professor Bill Pierson, who teaches biosecurity and infection control at Virginia Tech, says the 2002 avian flu outbreak in the Shenandoah Valley could not be linked to backyard flocks. He said roughly 90 small backyard flocks were tested for avian flu and none tested positive.

Prof. Pierson says the real threat is having chickens in the proximity of where migratory birds - like ducks and geese - congregate, as they are the carriers.

"At least from the 2002 data in Virginia, well managed backyard flocks pose minimal risk to commercial poultry," Pierson said.

“There's no way that all the agriculturally zoned areas of Augusta County that have free range chickens running around are less of a threat than four hens in my backyard in a coop,” said Rosenthal.

The Augusta Co. Board of Supervisors will have the final say on the issue, but not before they hear from the people. A public hearing is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Government Center in Verona on January 28.


More information from Prof. Pierson:

- How big of a threat is the avian flu?

Just like human influenza, avian influenza is with us all the time. Also, just like humans, the risk for poultry is increases during certain times of the year. For poultry, the risk increases when wild bird species migrate. Virginia is in what is known as the Atlantic Americas Flyway which ranges from the Artic to the tip of South America. It overlaps with other flyways i.e., the Mississippi and Pacific Americas Flyways. The most western flyway in the US overlaps in Alaska with the East Asia / Australia Flyway. So you can see that in the broadest sense, all of the continents, with the exception of Antarctica, are interconnected. Many species use these flyways to migrate toward the equator for the winter and then return, in our case, to more northern latitudes for breeding in the spring. There are many strains of Type A influenza and most cause little or no outward signs of disease. However, there are two major strains H5 and H7, that we are concerned about with poultry. This designation refers to a specific type of protein found on the surface of the virus. Not all H5 and H7 strains cause severe disease in poultry, but some can and they have the potential to mutate, so that's why we deal very aggressively with them.

So the risk for poultry in Virginia is primarily associated with migratory birds, commonly waterfowl like ducks and geese, carrying H5 and H7 strains of the virus. These strains often produce little or no apparent disease in waterfowl.

In 2002, the Shenandoah Valley experienced an outbreak of avian influenza that resulted in the loss of 4.7 million commercial birds. As you can imagine the financial impact to producers, companies and the state associated with direct losses and disease eradication efforts was substantial; over 130 million USD (this does not include costs incurred by the federal government which helped Virginia manage the outbreak).

- How is it transmitted?

The virus is typically transmitted through droppings (feces) that contain the virus, but can be spread via respiratory secretions from one bird to another.

- What keeps it from spreading?

Good biosecurity practices, rapid detection, and a rapid eradication response are the best ways to keep the disease from spreading. The Virginia Poultry Federation has developed a “Rapid Response Plan” for avian influenza to help prevent devastating losses. Likewise there are now laws in Virginia that require testing of poultry for avian influenza prior to movement for slaughter. Birds of a certain age coming into the state for other reasons like, sales or shows, must also be tested. The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services aka VDACS has the state of the art technology in Harrisonburg to perform this testing.

- Is there evidence that shows backyard hens have caused an avian flu outbreak?

During the 2002 outbreak, approximately 90 small, backyard flocks in the Shenandoah Valley were tested for avian influenza. None were found to be positive. However, recently on the west coast, some small backyard flocks have been found to be positive for highly pathogenic H5 strains in western Washington state and Oregon. No commercial flocks have been affected. In this case the avian influenza seems to have originated from waterfowl the affected poultry had access to land and water where the waterfowl frequented. There is no evidence that the viruses in this outbreak pose any risk to humans.

- Do free range chickens in an agriculturally zoned area pose a threat to the poultry industry?

At least from the 2002 data in Virginia, well managed backyard flocks pose minimal risk to commercial poultry. This is also due in part to the fact that poultry companies prohibit there employees from raising “outdoor” birds or coming in contact with them. However, from what we are seeing in Washington state and Oregon, poultry that have access to areas where geese and ducks may be grazing or ponds where they may be congregating, can contract the disease. This is where owners of small backyard flocks and free-range birds need to be very careful. I might also add that human or vehicle traffic over such areas can pose a risk because fecal material can be trapped in footwear or tires and unintentionally end up in areas where poultry are being raised.

- Does one (agriculturally zoned or cooped backyard) pose more of threat than the other?

Not really. The threat is more related to the proximity to areas where migratory birds, especially waterfowl, may be congregating. Overflight of migratory birds is of little concern compared to direct access to the ground or water that may have contaminated by congregation.

- What precautions can people take with backyard chickens to prevent the spread avian flu?

1) Be cognizant of where migratory birds, especially waterfowl are congregating. Be careful about vehicle or foot traffic in these areas and by all means, don't let your poultry go in these areas.

2) When working with your poultry, wear clothing including shoes, designated specifically for this purpose. Don't wear the clothing and shoes off the premises.

3) Have flocks that experience unexpected, multiple deaths or that are showing any signs of respiratory disease, examined by the veterinarians at the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Lab in Harrisonburg. Howvere, PLEASE call the lab first to get advice on how to bring birds in safely or collect samples and be sure that the clothing and shoes that you travel in are not the same one you used to work with the birds. The number for the VDACS lab in Harrisonburg is: 540.209.9130.

4) Practice good biosecurity. Information on this topic can be found at HealthyBirds.Aphis.USDA.gov.

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