Bird flu has hit the headlines in recent weeks as highly pathogenic strain H5N8 spreads across Europe. The virus has been detected in 13 European countries to-date with outbreaks in wild birds, poultry, hunting bird decoys, and a small number of zoological collections. The strain currently circulating has never been detected in humans.

So far this winter there have been no cases in the UK. Defra, along with Welsh and Scottish Governments, have declared a temporary requirement for all poultry keepers within Great Britain to keep their birds indoors, or take appropriate steps to keep them separate from wild birds. This is purely a precautionary measure to help prevent potential infection of poultry, and the actual role of wild birds in transmission of virus remains unclear.

Birds can be infected with the avian influenza virus through contact with infected saliva, nasal secretions or faeces, and wild birds can carry and transmit the virus to poultry. However there is no evidence of any wild bird species being able to carry this particular strain on a long-distance migration without it causing die-off in the birds themselves, making it unlikely that wild birds are the primary source of avian influenza spread.

There are several ways by which avian influenza may be transmitted, and globally the most important of these has been the unrestricted movement of poultry and poultry products. Therefore the risk of H5N8 circulation via poultry movements remains significantly high, and poultry keepers should help to prevent the spread of the virus by maintaining good biosecurity on their premises.

Defra are monitoring the situation, and members of the public are being asked to report any cases of dead wild waterfowl - such as swans, geese and ducks - or gulls, or five or more dead birds of other species to Defra (Tel: 03459 33 55 77). The RSPB have increased the level of surveillance on our reserves and are continuing to work closely with our partners to advise Defra on the actions required.