New measures to protect against avian flu have been announced that take a more targeted approach to controlling the disease.

The Government Chief Vet made the announcement today, following plans set out earlier this month for bird keepers to observe biosecurity measures, with housing orders still in place in higher risk areas.

Based on the current situation and the latest veterinary advice, the new approach aims to tackle the disease to protect bird welfare and ensure consumers can buy free range products.

The new approach will apply from when the current prevention zone expires on February 28, and gives most keepers the option to let birds outside whilst still taking precautions against avian flu.

All poultry keepers must continue to practice strict disease prevention measures, following Defra's guidance to take steps to reduce the risk of infection via the environment.

Nigel Gibbens, Chief Veterinary Officer, said: “Effective disease control will always be our priority.

"H5N8 continues to circulate in wild birds and we must all continue to do everything we can to reduce the risk of disease.

"All keepers across the country must follow strict mandatory disease prevention measures.

“Based on clear scientific evidence, the risk from wild birds is too high in some areas of England to rely on biosecurity measures alone.

"That’s why we are requiring birds in Higher Risk Areas to be housed or protected from wild bird contact by netting.

“We believe this is the best approach to control disease, protect birds’ welfare and ensure consumers can buy free range products.

"As with any disease control measures these will be kept under review based on the latest situation and up-to-date scientific advice.”

The disease is spread from wild birds, as well as from infected birds, which is why poultry keepers are currently required to take action to avoid contact between poultry and wild birds.

The best way to avoid contact is to keep flocks housed in a suitable building.

But the new approach is designed to give keepers options and allow free range production to continue.

Keepers in higher risk areas must continue to keep birds housed or netted, as Defra believe the risk from wild birds in these areas to be higher.

These areas are close to large bodies of water where wild waterfowl congregate.

All other keepers can choose to continue to house birds or to let birds outside, but must follow strict Defra guidance to reduce the risk of infection.

This includes a risk assessment to check that outside areas are not contaminated and the risk of contact with wild birds is low.

The H5N8 strain of the disease has been confirmed at a poultry farm in Suffolk, three linked premises on a commercial farm in Lancashire, three separate poultry farms in Lincolnshire, and in backyard flocks in North Yorkshire and Carmarthenshire.

Where avian flu is confirmed Defra take swift action to limit the spread of disease with restrictions around affected premises and full investigations to determine the source of infection.