Concern is mounting for seabirds across the UK and around the world, as Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) continues to take a devastating toll on wildlife. Last week, the RSPB’s chief executive, Beccy Speight, visited Coquet Island in Northumberland, to see, first-hand, the effects it is having there. 

Roseate terns on Coquet Island

In my role I’m incredibly fortunate to visit some of the UK’s most breath-taking places – and RSPB reserves are among many of those. One of our most spectacular reserves is Coquet Island. Not only is it an incredibly beautiful place, it’s also a seabird sanctuary of international significance. 

It’s home to around 82,000 seabirds, including the UK’s only roseate tern breeding colony. And thanks to the incredible work of passionate RSPB staff and volunteers, the island’s seabird population has gone from strength-to-strength over recent years. This year we have seen record numbers of roseate, Arctic, Sandwich and common terns.  

But in recent weeks, hundreds of birds have begun to die on Coquet island, with several species affected. Samples sent to Defra have now tested positive for Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI). This unprecedented outbreak of the virus has already caused the deaths of countless seabirds across Scotland too – with cases reported on many of Scotland’s islands – and an increasing number of confirmed cases are now appearing around the coast of England.  

While less dangerous forms of bird flu have probably been circulating in wild birds for centuries, this “highly pathogenic” and much more lethal version originated some years ago in East Asian intensive poultry units and has spilled over into wild birds. 

The impact of the disease on individual birds is extremely distressing to see and is of huge concern for our UK seabird populations which are of global significance. All four species of tern on Coquet Island have been affected, along with eider ducks, black-headed gulls and large gulls. Sea birds are long lived and produce low chick numbers, so population recovery will be slow.  

This disease is yet another threat to add to the massive challenges these birds are already facing, including climate change impacts, overfishing affecting food sources, deaths through entanglement in fishing gear (otherwise known as ‘bycatch’) and loss of nesting habitat.  

We are now calling for all UK governments to take urgent action, to develop an avian flu response plan to address HPAI in wild birds, as well as national seabird conservation strategies that will build resilience in our populations over the longer term. 

It is vital to have a coordinated approach to surveillance and testing, disturbance minimisation and public messaging, along with a joined-up strategy incorporating arrangements for the poultry sector. There also needs to be clarity on the process for collecting dead birds, and a real and lasting legacy for the Biosecurity for LIFE project, which protects vital breeding seabird nesting habitats across the UK in order to build their resilience in the face of this enormous challenge. 

Nature is truly in crisis here. Together, we will continue doing everything we can to help save it. 

As a wildlife sanctuary, RSPB Coquet Island is not open to the public and staff activity on site is being minimised with appropriate biosecurity arrangements in place. Fencing has been built to help prevent birds moving between different parts of the colony and spreading the disease through physical contact.  

In response to the crisis, we are running an emergency appeal. Donations will enable us to respond to the outbreak and help seabird numbers recover in the future. More information and details on how to donate can be found at rspb.org.uk/avianfluappeal   

If you come across dead or sick birds, do not touch them. Instead, please report them as soon as possible to the DEFRA helpline on 03459 33 55 77.  More information on Avian Influenza, including what it is, what do to if you find a sick bird and updates on recent outbreaks can be found on the RSPB website.  

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