RARE varieties of birds bred over generations could be wiped out if the Government reacts to bird flu as it did to foot and mouth, it has been claimed.

Widescale culling of poultry could see the end of pure breeds, said Edward Boothman, who keeps between 3,000 and 4,000 birds at Howden Park Farm at Silsden.

He added: "If we see blanket culls like happened with cattle during the foot and mouth crisis, some strains of birds are going to be lost forever."

If there is a serious outbreak, Mr Boothman wants to see a "holding station" where special breeds can be held and protected from infection.

He fears the general public is already over-reacting to the scare, but believes common sense and good hygiene will keep the disease at bay.

He made his remarks as Britain went on high alert over the possible spread of the disease.

Scientists have been examining nine dead swans, found across Britain, for the H5N1 strain of avian flu.

The Government has urged people not to panic and claim the chances of it reaching Britain are still low and reaching humans even more remote.

Mr Boothman, whose business includes selling poultry to smallholders, said he had already had one customer telephoning in a panic.

He said: "A woman with four hens rang me up saying she didn't want them any more and begging me to take them back. I assured her it was all right and she could keep them outside so long as she put a roof over her run.

"People are getting this out of proportion and over-reacting. Good husbandry is the way to tackle it."

Fellow farmer Maurice Jackson, of Airedale House Farm, Silsden, believes using tactics of widespread slaughter as with the foot and mouth epidemic, would spell disaster.

"Blanket slaughter like that would have terrible repercussions on the breeding stock," said Mr Jackson, who rears rare Moran chickens for their eggs, a link that goes back in his family until 1928.

"It would destroy the nucleus of the breed and we would never be able to get it back," he added.

Mr Jackson said he would support immunisation which had proved successful against other disease outbreaks in poultry, but it would have to be done quickly to be effective.

A NFU spokesman said poultry keepers were being urged to remain vigilant, to take precautions by disinfecting areas and restricting the number of people on to their farm.

The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesman said contingency plans were being put together.

They would involve setting up a three kilometre exclusion zone around the area where a bird was found to have the disease. All poultry movements would be halted and if domestic birds were found to be infected, the entire flock faced being culled.

A 10-mile surveillance area would also be established around the source of the outbreak where increased vigilance would be in operation.

All poultry keepers, with flocks of more than 50 birds, have been ordered to register their birds by the end of February as part of the strategy to fight any outbreak.