Bird flu threatens UK sea bird populations

Unrestricted movement of poultry and poultry products is fuelling spread of bird flu in UK
22 September 2022 , By Steve Smethurst

Avian Influenza Prevention Zones (AIPZ) are in force across Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly as RSPB and Wildlife Trusts urge government to develop a national strategy

More than 60 different wild bird species in the UK have been affected by a strain of the H5N1 avian flu virus. Bodies are being washed up on beaches and birds are dying on the streets of seaside towns.

Since its detection in poultry and wild birds in the Spring of 2021, more than 86 million birds in the US and Europe have been killed, mostly as a result of poultry culling to stop the spread of the disease.

RSPB spokesperson Martin Fowlie said that the strain initially affected overwintering geese, as well as swans, ducks and some raptors.

“A much wider number of species have now been affected,” he said. “It’s mainly seabirds (including gannets, great skuas, tern species, guillemots and gulls), but also other species such as crows.”

Joan Edwards, Director of Policy and Public Affairs at The Wildlife Trusts said it was a challenge these bird populations didn’t need. “Bird flu is killing huge numbers of wild birds that are already threatened by a range of other problems, from climate change and habitat loss to overfishing and pollution. The current outbreak is thought to be the worst ever in the UK.”

Fowlie explained that wild birds are often more resistant than domestic ones and can carry the disease without showing symptoms. He said this has led to speculation that they are the main cause of spreading. “But there are several ways: globally, the most significant has been the unrestricted movement of poultry and poultry products."

Bird keepers in the [South West] region must follow strict biosecurity measures to help protect flocks and mitigate the risk of further outbreaks

As a result of the outbreak, an Avian Influenza Prevention Zone (AIPZ) is now in force across Devon, Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly and parts of Somerset. It means that bird keepers in the region must follow strict biosecurity measures to help protect flocks and mitigate the risk of further outbreaks.

Brian O’Neill, Consultant in Public Health at Cornwall Council said the risk to human health was low. “But that’s not to say we shouldn’t be doing everything we can to stop it spreading. As well as not touching them, we would also strongly urge people not to feed wild birds at their local ponds, lakes and rivers as large gatherings of birds make transmission of the virus more likely.” 

Both the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts called on the government to develop a national strategy; clearer Defra guidance on wild bird carcass removal and disposal; more effective monitoring and surveillance systems; and a moratorium on releasing large numbers of non-native game birds while avian flu is present in the country.

Edwards added: “Intensive poultry sheds are a source of disease and the resulting chicken poo is polluting our rivers. It’s also vital that we see stronger leadership on helping wild birds recover in a range of policy decisions this autumn – the government has been slow to respond and the situation is far too serious to be swept under the carpet. Entire UK populations of seabirds are at risk of being lost.”


Image credit: Shutterstock

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