HENS and other birds are still being allowed to roam free, it is claimed, despite a national government rule that all poultry must be kept indoors in a bid to try to curtail the spread of a virulent strain of avian flu sweeping across the country.

The crackdown by Defra last December saw a new legal requirement for all poultry owners to bring their flocks indoors, to keep them separate from potentially infectious wild birds.

It applies not only to large commercial poultry farms, but also smaller backyard keepers with hens in coops or garden pens.

Lockdown and the shift towards 'self-sufficiency' has triggered a huge surge in interest by individuals in keeping birds, and there is concern that many may have scant regard or understanding of the importance of biosecurity measures.

Eden Valley young farmer, Chris Dickinson, director of a large free range egg producing company called Wot-A-Hen, and former national poultry adviser for the National Farmers Union (NFU), claimed some poultry owners have still got their hens outside.

"Everyone needs to play their part. Even if keepers only have a couple of hens they still need to stay indoors.

"Recently I went on a five-mile hike and noticed four places that had chickens roaming. Nobody seems to be listening. I do not know if they are just ignoring the regulations or whether they do not know.

"Bird flu is still very much active, there have been 21 cases so far, and to ignore the rules is to put people's livelihoods at risk. Times are hard for commercial poultry owners at the moment with high prices being paid for feed."

A Penrith resident has also complained that poultry are roaming free on the green off Bridge Lane, despite avian flu regulations.

Rob Melloy, RSPCA chief inspector, covering Cumbria, said they were currently only responding to emergencies due to the lockdown, but he said they had not noticed the numbers of abandoned poultry going up, but he added that keepers needed to abide by the regulations laid down by Defra.

"Bird flu has not gone away. This has been an especially virulent strain that is circulating in the country."

The restrictions apply to chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese, pigeon (bred for meat), partridge, quail, guinea fowl and pheasants.

No end date for the measures has yet been given, and Defra said they would be kept under “regular review”.

Chief Veterinary Officer Christine Middlemiss said: “Whether you keep just a few birds or thousands, you are now legally required to meet enhanced biosecurity requirements and this is in your interests to do, to protect your birds from this highly infectious disease.”

The risk to public health from this virus is ''very low, and does not pose a food safety risk.