Bird owners may keep their pets after all, the government said yesterday, in a policy U-turn ahead of a judicial review of its poultry ban sought by the Heung Yee Kuk. The move will affect chickens, ducks, geese, quails and pigeons kept as pets by owners who failed to apply for an exemption through a so-called 'exhibition licence' by the time the ban came into force on February 13. Only 228 applications for such licences have been made, mostly by racing-pigeon breeders. Last night, the kuk said it would apply on Monday for a judicial review of the ban, which it believes contravened the Basic Law's protection of property rights. Owners who hid their pets for fear of confiscation will now be allowed to keep them until the birds die, according to Deputy Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food Eddy Chan Yuk-tak. 'It is not a licence ... [But for] those who have not asked for a licence, we will go for a grandfather clause,' Mr Chan said. The 'grandfather clause' would exempt people who had kept poultry as pets before the new law went into force on February 13, so long as they had put in place 'appropriate biosecurity measures'. Mr Chan said that because the H5N1 virus that causes bird flu was constantly mutating, the exemption could be restricted. 'In future, if we have evidence showing that pigeons are also infected with H5N1, then we may not be able to allow the pigeon owners to continue keeping their pigeons,' he said at a meeting of the Legislative Council bills subcommittee examining amendments to the backyard-poultry ban. 'We understand that this is a free community and different people may like different pets,' he said. A statement from the Health, Welfare and Food Bureau said the move was made after taking into consideration poultry owners' requests. Over the past 12 days, 38 households have been found to be keeping illegal poultry. A total of 235 chickens and 69 other birds have been confiscated and killed.