A poultry keeper fears that rare birds, bred over generations, could be wiped out if the Government reacts to bird flu as it did to foot and mouth.

Widescale culling of hens could see the end of pure breeds from which the present stock of poultry had been developed, said Edward Boothman.

"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," he said.

Mr Boothman keeps between 3,000 and 4,000 birds at Howden Park Farm, in Silsden.

If there is a serious outbreak, he wants to see a "holding station" where special strains of birds can be protected from infection.

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

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

The Government has urged people not to panic and claims the chances of it reaching Britain are still low and of it 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.

"A woman with four hens rang me up saying she didn't want them any more and begging me to take them back," he said.

"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 all out of proportion and over-reacting. Good husbandry is the way to tackle it."

His colleague, 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," he said. "It would destroy the nucleus of the breed and we would never be able to get it back," said Mr Jackson, who rears the rare Moran chickens for their eggs, a link that goes back in his family to 1928.

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.

An 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.

It was working with the Government on contingency plans to be put in place if there was an outbreak.

A Department for Environment, Foot, and Rural Affairs spokesman said contingency plans 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.

And a ten-mile surveillance area would 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.