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Managing Free Range Layers during a housing order

Helen Errington BVMS CertSHP MRCVS

What is a Housing Order?
Housing orders are brought into force by legislation during outbreaks of avian notifiable disease, such as Avian Influenza (AI), as an aid to controlling the spread of disease. These measures are enforced when the risk from disease exceeds the needs for free range egg production and to protect the health and welfare of the birds by limiting their risk of exposure to the disease. The housing order also aims to protect the economics of the industry as compulsory slaughter, cleansing and disinfection of sites is very costly and can be very damaging to the image of Free Range Egg Production. Eggs can be marked as free range for up to 16 weeks whilst the birds are being kept inside. In newly placed flocks this starts from the time the pullets are placed on the laying site and NOT when first eggs appear.

During the time of a housing order it is a legal requirement to have good biosecurity in place and there should be no non-essential visitors coming onto your site. Having regularly replenished foot dips made up to the correct concentration, not too strong or not too weak, is essential. The disinfectants used must be those recommended on the DEFRA list and we would recommend using Interkokask for this purpose.

The most recent cases of AI that have been identified in the UK have been attributed to either contact with wild birds or water ingression into the birds housing. There are a couple of strains of Avian Influenza known to be circulating in the UK at present. You should make yourself familiar with the clinical signs of bird flu which, in laying hens, tends to be increased mortality, ill looking birds and a drop in egg production.

If you have any concerns regarding the health and welfare of your birds, or if you suspect AI in your flock, please get in touch with your local St David’s veterinary surgeon by contacting 01392 872932.

For further information on AI and the preventative measures that bird keepers are expected to uphold during this time, please see the DEFRA document via the link here.
What can I do to limit the impact of a housing order on my flock?
There are challenges to overcome when a flock that is accustomed to being let out at a certain time and ranging freely is suddenly kept in. Once a housing order is announced, such as the one due to come into effect on Monday 14th December 2020, it is advised that during the days in which you have to prepare that you begin to vary the times of pop-holes being opened. This will give you an idea of how the birds will react and what you may have to do to mitigate against the effects of being housed.

Below are the 6 key areas of risk and our best recommendations on how to avoid them:

1 – Ventilation
This can be a problem in the winter months when the pop-holes are closed, especially in naturally ventilated buildings, which can adversely affect litter quality. Ventilation systems can be adjusted in automatically vented buildings to prevent deterioration in litter quality and your ventilation consultant should be contacted for advice if required. Badly capped litter should be removed from the house and the bedding material replenished.

2- Injurious feather pecking
This can be a sequel to the stress of being kept in and once this behaviour is established it can be very difficult to control.

  • Reducing the lux level of lighting within legal levels can be a useful tool in calming the birds and preventing bullying.
  • Adequate enrichment should always be in place, especially of the destructible type such as alfalfa bales and pecking blocks. We would recommend Vilofoss ‘hard’ pecking blocks as they last longer, contain minerals and help keep the birds occupied. A new and exciting Natu-peck block is now also available, which has the added benefit of Actigen to aid gut health stability, as well as extracts from Yucca plants which is known to help bind and reduce Ammonia levels, which will inevitably rise during this lockdown. This block has recently joined our poultry support stocks. Please call our dispensary team on 01392 872932 to find out more information.
  • Grit given at 7g/bird/week sprinkled on the scratch area keeps the birds occupied and also helps keep litter friable as they scratch about to find the particles.

3- Common Respiratory Diseases
Keeping the hens housed increases infection pressure for diseases such as Infectious Bronchitis (IB) and can exacerbate the clinical signs and the spread of disease among the birds. The majority of flocks in the UK are vaccinated with live IB vaccines in lay and this should continue. If your flock is vaccinated, then we would advise that you continue with your vaccinations during any housing order, administering by your usual method of either spray application, or via the drinking water.

4- Smothering
During the last housing order back in 2017, we were all very concerned about the possible increase in smothering incidents as bird pile up against closed pop-holes. Fortunately, there weren’t as many incidences of this as we had expected. Flocks should be monitored around the usual times of pop-hole opening and crowds of birds broken up by walking the scratch area. The placement of ramps or other objects which stop hens crowding in areas can help to prevent deaths due to smothering. Electric fences should only be used as a last resort and after discussion with your vet who may have to write a letter to allow for a derogation for use depending on the age of the flock.

5- Pressure on gut health
Your chickens gut is the engine of your birds, without optimal health the bird cannot extract the vital ingredients needed to fight off diseases, keep general body functions going or to produce high quality eggs. Using ABC pH is vital to help reduce the detrimental bacterial loads that will inevitably increase in the birds given their likely increased exposure to droppings in the scratch area.

This will also help shore up eggshell quality issues, especially if the birds are stressed about being kept in. For older flocks, 50 Weeks Plus, a part of the Poultry Pharm product range, is specifically designed to support hens in the second half of the laying period. And will undoubtedly reduce the risk of increasing shell quality issues that may occur with birds that are under increased stress. Herbivit Plus is also a great supplement for younger birds and helps with weight gain in recently placed pullets where this is an issue.

All these products and descriptions of their uses can be found at and for more advice or information on the right product for your flock, please speak to your local St David’s Vet  who will be happy to help.

6- Parasites
Finally, it is also important that you continue to monitor any worm and parasite issues during the housing period. Worm Egg Count testing, as well as necessary worming, should continue during this time. Birds can still succumb to worm infestations even when indoors and 16 weeks without worming could allow several worm life cycles to occur, causing gut damage and affecting egg production. If birds are being kept inside then it is easier to dose wormer through the drinking water as this is their only water supply, and there is no risk of them consuming non-medicated water from other sources. We would recommend using Panacur AquaSol, Gallifen or Flimabend in the drinking water, however, please discuss what product would best suit your system with your local St David’s vet.

Red mite is also another problem to keep an eye on as increases in house temperatures may occur when the pop-holes are closed, which will subsequently encourage more mite activity and reproduction than we usually see in the winter months. Dergall is an effective spray treatment for Red Mite which can be sprayed with the birds present. Exzolt, which is a prescription medication, is administered in the drinking water and is also a good option for combating a heavy mite infestation whilst the birds are housed. If mites do become a problem for your birds, please do get in touch with your local veterinary team who will be able to advise on which mite solutions and products would work best for your farm.

If you have any concerns on the health and welfare of your laying birds during the housing order please do not hesitate to contact your St David’s team via telephone on 01392 872932, or by emailing

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