Chickens allowed outside after 12 weeks of being cooped up

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Restrictions on 'free range' chickens are set to be relaxed. Farmers have had to keep their hens indoors for the last 12 weeks to protect them from an outbreak of bird flu.

They are now allowed outside, although ones in 'higher risk' areas will have to be kept in netted enclosures.

Poultry farmers and 'free-range' egg producers have been operating under government restrictions for several months due to a Europe-wide outbreak of avian flu.

There has been an order to keep poultry indoors to prevent the spread of the disease.

Farmers have been able to retain their 'free range' status until now but that right will expire after February 28.

After then, chicken, meat and eggs will no longer be able to be sold as 'free range' if they remain still indoors.

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The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Defra,has announced that the restrictions will be lifted but only partially.

Most farmers will be allowed to let their flocks outside.

David George, from the National Farmers' Union, said "For health reasons you can keep them indoors up to 12 weeks and still have the free range designation."

"Europe I think was not willing to extend that so this is a way by which at least some people can keep their 'free range' designation for longer than the 12 weeks, even though the risk of avian influenza is still there."

A small percentage of farms fall into 'higher risk' zones, as detailed in an interactive map.

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These 'higher risk' zones are near large bodies of water like estuaries and lakes where high numbers of wild waterfowl are found.

Animals in the 'higher risk' zones may be released outside, but must be kept in a netted area.

Releasing them fully outside in a 'higher risk' area would be a gamble as if one bird contracts the disease, it would mean the total slaughter of the flock.