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There'll be flu birds over the white cliffs of Dover

LONDON

the years, the British have fired shots at all manner of menacing things trying to make their way across the English Channel: French and Spanish warships, Luftwaffe planes, V-2 rockets, submarines.

But it was only this week that geese and ducks became an imminent threat to national security.

Thousands of shotgun-wielding British hunters, huddled behind duck blinds and crouching in marshes, have been empowered by the government to play a key role in their country's battle to prevent an avian-flu epidemic from overtaking the country.

The government's veterinary authorities, fearful of infected birds making their way into Britain from flu-prone regions of eastern Russia, have given the hunters, as well as conservation groups and birdwatchers, bird-flu testing kits and asked them to shoot down as many birds as possible, test them for the disease, and otherwise stand guard against these menacing foreign invaders.

Debby Reynolds, who devised the plan to empower hunters as head of Britain's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, urged citizens to keep watch over the skies.

"The risk of avian influenza spreading from eastern Russia to the U.K. via migrating birds is still low," she told reporters. "However, we have said all along that we must remain on the lookout for the disease. This surveillance program is important to maintain vigilance."

The huntsmen have become foot soldiers in a continent-wide battle -- some would say a hysteria -- against a threat that has not yet killed anyone in Europe. But so fearsome is the avian flu, which has killed 60 people in Asia, that governments from Turkey to Britain are using hunters and soldiers to gun down record numbers of birds.

The death toll, at least among winged creatures, is already in the millions, as Russia, Ukraine, Romania and Turkey have ordered hunters and soldiers to cull as many birds as possible within their borders.

Organizers of the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne have taken out insurance worth £150-million (nearly $310-million) in case the event next March is cancelled because of bird flu, the Guardian reports in today's edition.

Britain's National Counter Terrorism Committee has included the use of bird-flu strain H5N1 as a weapon in possible attack scenarios. Australia has joined the United States and Canada in treating bird flu as a possible "agri-terrorism" weapon against the West.

But the threat may prove featherweight.

Yesterday, European Union authorities said the cases of the avian flu reported earlier this week in Romania all turned out to be false. It was reassuring news, indicating the disease has not yet reached birds in continental Europe. But it was too late for tens of thousands of domestic fowl in Romania, who have been rounded up and killed by soldiers.

Troops have taken an equally aggressive stand against feathered foes in Turkey, where reports of bird flu are persistent. At one farm near the Aegean Sea, 2,000 birds were killed in one day. Yesterday, fears of disease prompted the EU to ban all live poultry imports from Turkey.

In Germany, the government ordered a complete halt to all free-range farming, ordering all domestic fowl to be moved into barns. Free-range poultry and eggs are hugely popular among wealthy consumers in continental Europe, so the ban has had a major effect.

The Dutch government has ordered that five million free-range chickens, geese, turkeys and ducks be kept indoors. And in Britain, farmers are terrified that a bird-flu outbreak could ruin the Christmas season -- even if it doesn't spread to humans.

"The first thing we'll do is bring all our birds indoors. It's about all we can do," Robert Garner, of Norfolk-based Godwick Turkeys, told a farm-trade newspaper yesterday. "But it's a real worry because we're very heavily into the Christmas market and it's a major part of our income."

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