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Rare wild birds among species hit by ‘unprecedented’ avian flu outbreak

UK authorities are shocked by the scale of an avian flu outbreak that has devasted wild bird breeding colonies and swept through poultry farms.

August 31, 2022
By Emily Beament
31 August 2022

Wild birds from threatened roseate terns, puffins and gannets to hen harriers are being hit by an “unprecedented” avian flu outbreak, officials have said.

Bird flu has been found at scores of poultry farms and commercial premises across the UK in the past year, while the disease has also ripped through breeding colonies of seabirds, killing thousands in some sites.

The Environment Department (Defra) and Welsh Government have set out new guidance to land managers, the public and conservation groups to curb the impact of bird flu in wild birds, while protecting health and the countryside.

A dead seabird about to be cleared by the National Trust team in protective clothing
A dead seabird is among those cleared by the National Trust team on the Farne Islands. (Owen Humphreys/PA)

The National Trust, which has seen devastating outbreaks at sites it cares for such as the Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland, welcomed the strategy, but warned much of the guidance was “too little, too late”.

The guidance includes advice for landowners on how to make natural areas safe for the public, such as signs to warn them of the risks, and having contingency plans in place to allow them to respond quickly to outbreaks.

It also sets out the government approach to monitoring and better understanding the spread of avian influenza in wild bird populations.

Researchers have already received £1.5 million to develop new strategies to tackle outbreaks of bird flu.

The current outbreak of H5N1 bird flu, which began in October last year, is being described by officials as “unprecedented in its scale and the breadth of species affected”.

Bird flu has been detected in hen harriers, a species already facing threatened species status. (Owen Humphreys/PA)

It is the longest and largest such outbreak on record in the UK, continuing beyond the normal winter period for the disease and hitting wild birds and breeding colonies of seabirds not normally affected.

Monitoring by the Animal and Health Plant Agency in the outbreak has shown more than 1500 found dead wild birds testing positive for the disease, recovered from more than 360 locations and including 61 species.

 

Bird flu has been detected in breeding seabirds that are already considered to be struggling, including roseate terns, puffins and herring gulls, which are all “red listed” over conservation concerns.

In England, there are particular concerns over high levels of deaths at the only UK breeding colony of roseate terns on Coquet Island, Northumberland, and high mortality at amber-listed Sandwich tern breeding colonies in Northumberland and Norfolk.

Concerns are also emerging over bird flu which has been confirmed in gannets on Grassholm Island off the Pembrokeshire coast in Wales.

Officials warn that high levels of mortality caused by avian influenza could have serious impacts on England and Wales’s breeding seabird populations.

The National Trust team of rangers clear dead birds from Staple Island, one of the Farne Islands. (Owen Humphreys/PA)

Bird flu has has also been detected in other species in Britain where there are conservation concerns, including red-listed white tailed eagles, also known as sea eagles, and England’s most threatened bird of prey, the hen harrier.

Defra biosecurity minister Lord Benyon said: “Our wild birds are facing exceptional pressures from avian flu this year and we have seen the tragic effect it has had – particularly on our seabird colonies.

“I very much share concerns about the impact avian influenza is likely to have on breeding populations of wild birds in the future, particularly those that nest in large numbers and represent some of our rarer species.

“We are funding a science programme to try and better understand how avian influenza is spreading in wild birds and today’s guidance will help land managers, ornithologists and the public manage some of the issues we are facing.”

 

The Welsh Government’s minister for climate change Julie James said the country’s wild populations had so far escaped the mass mortalities seen in Scotland, but they remained vigilant to the dangers, and had suspended all seabird ringing and nest recording in Wales.

“Wales is home to the world’s largest colony of Manx shearwaters, the third largest gannet colony, as well as large colonies of other seabirds, such as auks, gulls and terns.

“We will continue to closely monitor the ongoing situation and urge anyone who sees a dead bird to report it and not to touch it,” she said.

National Trust director of science and nature Rosie Hails welcomed the strategy from Defra and the Welsh Government, its acknowledgement of the impact of avian influenza on seabird colonies, and urged the new stakeholder group to explore its impact further on wild bird populations.

A puffin flies from a cliff, where other puffins wait
Puffins are among the birds affected by the bird flu outbreak. (Owen Humphreys/PA)

“However, a lot of the guidance is too little, too late, and we still want to see advice for landowners on best practice in disease management in wild birds, particularly around the collection and removal of dead birds, suspected to have succumbed to the disease, for biosecurity and transmission prevention,” she said.

“The impact on our seabird colonies has been devastating with more than 5000 birds alone found dead on the Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland, which at the time weren’t able to be tested, and we believe these numbers to be sadly just the tip of the iceberg.”

She said more work needs to be done to address the risk to the wider wild bird population heading into the autumn migration period, and more planning on how to support landowners if the disease spreads to mammals such as seals as the grey seal pupping season begins.

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