Avian Flu prevalent in Wild Birds

After a number of localised outbreaks in the past few years, avian flu has re-emerged as a major driver of bird deaths across the UK.  The first outbreaks of avian influenza back in October 2021 occurred largely in chickens and domestic birds triggering culls and keeping animals indoors for six months over the winter. But the outbreak is not only confined to the UK.  Sub types have been detected in West Africa, nearly every European country and North America where 38 million birds have been culled alone.  

Here in the UK wild bird populations being affected by avian flu, over winter, included Great Skua, Pink-footed geese and Barnacle geese. These included the mass death of 4,000 birds on the Solway Firth representing one-third of the Svalbard barnacle goose population that spend winters in the area.

But reports of large numbers of wild seabirds found dead in Scotland and increasingly in England and Wales, suggest that avian flu is now prevalent in a wider diversity of wild birds in the UK. A wide array of seabirds continues to be affected, including great skua, eider ducks, fulmar, terns, gannets and guillemots. The UK holds over half the world’s population of gannet and great skua, both of which have been officially recognised as birds of moderate conservation concern (“amber status”). 

Recently The National Trust confirmed that The Farne islands, home to approximately 200,000 seabirds including Arctic terns and Puffins, off the Northumberland coast are closed to visitors. The National Trust said it had "no other choice" after rangers found significant numbers of dead birds. While boat tours will continue to sail around the islands, visitors will now not be able to step ashore. 

Avian flu retains infectivity in the environment for up to 18 days. So the large number of dead birds on the coast with possible infections presents a continuing pathway for transmission to birds of prey and carrion feeders, particularly gulls, which are known to be susceptible to avian flu. Increasing the number of carcasses being collected would have the added benefit of removing the potential for carrion feeders to become infected, and so further infect other birds.

Given some of these seabirds can range over huge distances in search of food – up to 400km for gannets, for instance – we will need a national approach to this, with coordination across the four nations of the UK. Avian flu adds to the litany of problems these birds face – from climate change to entanglement in abandoned fishing gear – and increases the concerns of organisations such as RSPB and Birdlife, who already consider this outbreak to be the worst the UK has ever faced.

What next?

Desperate calls from conservation bodies, for the government to take effective action, include a National Response Plan that includes practical steps to support conservation teams, surveillance and monitoring of spread in wild bird populations, research into ways of slowing its spread, and clear biosecurity measures."

Conservation organisations have also asked for more resources to help with monitoring and tackling the problem. Many bird wardens and reserve managers already work on  nature reserves most affected by avian flu, and so they will be an important part of the solution. More broadly, more surveillance of avian flu is needed so that a better idea of the problem can be identified. This will mean also giving the relevant government departments and agencies the resources they need to monitor and test more wild birds. Because the virus has been repeatedly transmitted between the domestic stocks and wild bird populations, we should also look again at biosecurity measures in the poultry industry. 

Public health

Avian flu is a zoonotic disease like COVID-19, the risk to human health is very low, and cases in humans have almost exclusively arisen from close contact between bird keepers and their stock. The advice for the public is not to touch any dead birds you see and to report them.

If you feed wild birds, remember to wash and disinfect feeders every week and to clean bird baths every day, as avian flu is mainly transmitted via saliva and droppings. And if you’re out walking your dog, keep a closer eye on them when you’re on the beach or by water, and use a lead when you’re on a nature reserve or see a dead bird.

There is no doubt that the increased visibility of the deaths will bring home the scale of the problem to the general public. Bird flu has now “arrived” in our minds, and will take on more prominence as the summer continues and holidays begin. Though the risk to humans is very low, it serves as another reminder of how connected we are to nature, and how our interactions with the natural world have huge consequences for what we regard as “human” systems.

"It's all about encouraging people to participate and learn about the natural world through hands on discovery."

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