(c) David Andrews (rspb-images.com)
Today’s blog is written by Claire Smith, Senior Policy Officer – Avian Influenza on how we need UK governments to do much more for wild birds during the ongoing Avian Influenza outbreak.
Avian Influenza is devastating UK wild bird populations, exacerbating ongoing nature declines across the country. Responses by UK governments are insufficient to protect, restore, and build resilience in our precious wildlife. We call on them to act now.
The RSPB has been calling on all UK’s governments to do more to help wild birds in the face of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) since 2021, when the effects were first felt in Great Skuas and Svalbard Barnacle Geese.
There is much that can be done to build resilience in our globally important wild populations. We need UK governments to act in accordance with the Convention of Migratory Species UN Task Force statement on HPAI and acknowledge that wild birds, including globally threatened species, are victims of HPAI viruses causing avian influenza. Both this and the recently launched UN Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework and that UK is a signatory to emphasise the need for a One Health approach.
This means recognising the health of humans, domestic and wild animals, plants, and the wider environment are all inter-connected, and acting with a coordinated and unified approach.
HPAI is a novel and highly significant human-generated pressure on the UK’s internationally important bird populations that requires increased monitoring and research to develop practical action.
We are calling for:
- A testing and monitoring system that is targeted at wild bird populations (and mammals) and is not just an early warning system to protect poultry.
- Increased funding for research into how the virus is impacting birds and where resistance is developing.
- Progress on other conservation actions that will build resilience in populations and buy slow-breeding species’ such as seabirds and raptors time to develop resistance against the disease. For example, publishing the Seabird Conservation Strategy. Seabirds are already under massive pressure from climate change, lack of prey fish, deaths through entanglement in fishing gear, predation by non-native invasive species on islands where they nest and developments along our coasts.
- A precautionary approach to wildlife management which accounts for the large losses of gulls and geese when issuing control licences.
- A moratorium on gamebird releases whilst the HPAI pandemic continues to reduce spread to wild birds and the risk of viral re-assortment.
- Clear guidance and funding for landowners and public on removing and disposing dead birds.
Avian Influenza (AI) circulates in wild bird populations naturally and is likely to have been present in low pathogenic forms (LPAI) for centuries. The current strain of HPAI however, is a more recent phenomenon. The current outbreak is part of a series beginning in poultry in East Asia in 2003 and involving particularly lethal sub-types. Following the emergence of a specific viral lineage in domestic geese in Guangdong, China in 1996, there have been increasing detections of HPAI viruses, often associated with mortality in wild birds. Nearly all (36 out of 39) conversions from LPAI to HPAI are known to have occurred in intensive poultry farms. This series of outbreaks is easily the largest and most severe on record.
Current surveillance and action around this virus is focused around protecting poultry and messaging focuses on wild birds spreading the virus to farmed birds.
Migratory birds are both vectors and victims of HPAI. The severity of the disease can vary amongst species and individuals. Genetic sampling suggests that the virus first reached the UK via migratory birds, but there are now likely to have been multiple transmission routes to wild birds in the UK and more that are ongoing. Birds of prey and owls often forage around farms. These species may contract the virus through predating or scavenging infected animals, or possibly through feeding on rodents that carrying virus on their fur. There is growing evidence of spread from poultry to wild birds beyond Asia, for example in the USA and Germany
We urge that surveillance and biosecurity measures are reinforced to reduce transmission risk from poultry and released game birds, to wild birds.
We are asking UK governments to invest in and develop effective monitoring, surveillance, research, and reporting systems to build real-time understanding of the virus and its progress in wildlife. This includes increased funding for the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA). Currently all HPAI samples from both poultry and wildlife across Great Britain go through a single lab at Weybridge. Similarly, in Northern Ireland, DAERA’s testing capacity is limited with no testing of wild birds currently taking place. These deficiencies mean that very few samples of the many thousands of wild birds dying can be tested, and it limits testing on healthy birds. This compromises our understanding of how the virus is spreading and evolving.
We need an effective National Response Plan, specifically for wild birds, in each of the four UK countries, with dedicated cross-organisational Task Forces, and to build cross-UK coordination and information sharing. The lack of a coordinated UK response to this crisis for nature is restricting, for example, the effectiveness of the overall research and monitoring effort that informs specific responses.
- Include clear and effective guidance and arrangements for carcass collection, virus testing and serological analysis on samples from both dead and living birds, to help target mitigation measures.
- Put in place measures to minimise disturbance to wild birds during localised HPAI outbreaks, including control of public access, hunting, boating etc.
- Coordinate clear and consistent public messaging so that people know not to touch sick or dead birds and to control pets when around wild birds.
- In the longer term, they must implement measures to build resilience in vulnerable wildlife populations through enhanced species recovery programmes and conservation measures.
We are frustrated that the mitigation strategy for Avian Influenza in Wild Birds in England and Wales has been produced largely without the input and expertise from the key NGOs that are already monitoring and working with wild birds in the field. We welcome the strategy as a start, but it does not amount to an adequate overall HPAI Response Plan for wild birds. The guidance on prevention, mitigation, and control of avian influenza focuses on preventing disease in poultry, and on human health - but it fails to cover the protection and resilience of wild bird populations.
We also welcome the draft Scottish HPAI Contingency Plan recently produced by NatureScot, but are disappointed that it does not include targeted and specific action to promote species recovery and resilience building, despite Scottish wild bird populations being among the worst affected anywhere. Given that the current draft Scottish Biodiversity Strategy does not signal increased action for species recovery, and that development of the Seabird Conservation Strategy appears to have stalled repeatedly, we urge that the HPAI Plan includes firm and explicit pointers towards species recovery action, with a particular focus on seabirds.
Poultry farmers, and those with backyard flocks or other captive birds, have been under housing orders since the autumn. Yet Tthe annual release of large numbers of reared, non-native gamebirds into the UK environment took place last year. A risk assessment published by Defra in December highlights the high risk of reared pheasants spreading the disease to wild birds, and for associated viral reassortment/mutation. In light of this we are seeking a commitment to a continued moratorium on the release of gamebirds whilst the international HPAI outbreak continues, to protect wild birds and minimise the risk of further evolution of the virus. There is also a need to improve biosecurity at poultry units to reduce the risk of the virus escaping through waste, water outflows and via rodent fur.
On top of the multiple and severe threats that human activities impose on nature, HPAI is a new and devastating human-generated pressure that is impacting the UK’s precious and globally important wild birds. As a society, we can and must do better to understand and respond to the immediate challenges for wild birds, and to build resilience in these populations so they can endure and thrive in future.
- You can read more about the Avian influenza research RSPB is carrying out with partners here: https://community.rspb.org.uk/ourwork/b/birdflu/posts/bird-flu-update-march-2023
- Video with call to action for UK governments: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eH9Td-Od-qg
- RSPB Avian Influenza webpages: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/advice/how-you-can-help-birds/disease-and-garden-wildlife/avian-influenza-updates/
Hi Simon, thanks for your comment. I've raised your comment with the blog author, Claire Smith, and her response is below:"As the current testing is scheme is set up as a warning system for poultry and only a small proportion of birds dying from HPAI are tested we agree that none of the data or mapping summarises the situation well in wild birds. We welcome that Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, Northern Ireland Environment Agency and NatureScot are all setting up systems to record dead birds this year. You can also record dead birds on BirdTrack.
You can view a map of wild birds positive tests here:
And a list of latest test results here
It would help if the APHA map regularly showed outbreaks in wild birds. In October 2022 there was an outbreak at a poultry farm near Hannington just north east of Swindon. At about the same time there were major outbreaks at Coate Water and a couple of other sites to the east of Swindon. Also, the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust reserve at Langford Lakes, near Salisbury, also had a major outbreak. None of these appeared on the map, giving a false impression of the situation in Wiltshire.