Well, at long last we have received the formal response to the legal letter sent to the Secretary of State, Hilary Benn. The first thing I noticed was that this time the letter had not been signed off by Mr Benn but a ‘programme manager’, whatever/whoever that may be.
In essence the response is rather how I anticipated it. Our letter of 1 February to DEFRA really pulled apart their arguments of their first letter. This letter just seems to have confirmed all those same points again. The have defended their decision to ban continental racing last July on the basis that they needed to see if there was a spread of AI through France and the fact that France then permitted international racing where they didn’t ‘was immaterial’.
On the susceptibility of pigeons to AI and in particular whether pigeons can shed the AI virus the DEFRA jury is still out. They accept that the risk from pigeons is low but as they have said repeatedly ‘low risk does not mean no risk’.
The letter then tells us that DEFRA takes a risk-based approach to its decision to licence pigeon racing. This is done via a veterinary risk assessment (VRA) that reviews scientific evidence and they then base their decisions on that VRA and they have to ‘consider the risk that something may happen’.
Although DEFRA concedes that there is no documented case available where pigeons have introduced AI to poultry (I had asked them for evidence that there was) they state that there is still no definite proof of exactly where the source and route that AI has come from in recent AI cases. Again, they state that pigeons MAY be a possible source of infection.
Next, the issue of the 7 day isolation period. DEFRA restates the accepted protocol for the World Organisation for Animal Health which states that the maximum incubation period for AI is 21 days. The average incubation period is however 3 to 5 days and therefore DEFRA considers that 7 days is a safe margin when birds should be isolated from other birds and regularly inspected for signs of disease. As you know from the last View form the Reddings this was one of the major points we took up with Hilary Benn at the recent meeting and he has, at the very least, agreed to review this timescale to see if any allowances can be made.
Regarding the Channel Islands DEFRA continues to state that from a disease control point of view the Channel Islands are still considered to be part of continental Europe and therefore the 28 days isolation period stays. Again, this was a major point that Mr Benn was appraised of and he agreed to revisit this. As I write this review is being undertaken by DEFRA policy officers. Our argument of course was that Dover was nearer to France than Guernsey. Hopefully someone may have done their maths by now.
I had also queried that fact that shooting was allowed in the Suffolk control areas where the last commercial AI outbreak was found and this didn’t make sense given that man has been proven to spread the disease mechanically many times. Again their argument was that appropriate risk assessments had been made and proportionate measures were taken.
DEFRA concludes the letter by stating that the nature of the risk they are managing and European law requirements mean that they cannot (will not) take pigeon racing and showing out of the AI legislation. They will however, continue to consult with us during the VRA and policy review process.
So what are we to make of this? Well, firstly I can honestly say that I was not surprised by the content of this response. Certainly the reply mirrors the stance that was taken at the recent meeting with the Secretary of State. It is interesting that they back their refusal to budge by stating that the measure they impose are European law requirements and of course this is very true so perhaps a judicial review within the UK only may be waste of time and money if they can prove (and I think they can easily) that they are following EU legislation. So perhaps it is the EU itself we should be tackling. The difficulty we have is that under this EU law each member state can make their own derogations (their own rules within the overall rules).
Copies of the DEFRA response has been sent out to members of Council for them to decide the way ahead and I am busy collating their responses to see how we should proceed. I will of course keep you appraised of where we are going with this plus any AI update as part of the DEFRA policy review with regards to the 7 day isolation and the Channel Islands.
I have put the DEFRA letter on the RPRA website under AI news, along with our last letter to Mr Benn, for you to see the full content. Observations, as always, are welcome.
The Royal Pigeon Racing Association