Avian Influenza update

RSPB Scotland's Country Communications Manager, Kirsty Nutt gives us  an update on the bird flu situation we are currently experiencing. 

You may already know that Scotland’s seabirds are currently facing a catastrophe – an outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) like nothing we've seen before in wild birds in the UK.

It started late last summer when, at the end of the breeding season just before they left our shores, a number of great skuas (bonxies) died in the very north of Scotland of HPAI. Then last autumn it affected large numbers of barnacle geese that breed in Svalbard in Norway and spend the winter on the Solway estuary. Counts of live birds suggest 16,500 individual birds were lost – around 38% of the population.

This was the first time that HPAI, a deadly disease that originated in poultry farming, has had a population-level impact on wild birds in the UK.

It also had a toll on my colleagues, particularly those at our Mersehead nature reserve, but others too as the virus affected small numbers of other species across the country.

We started preparing to try to assess the impact it might have had on bonxies, readying ourselves for their return from spending the winter off the coast of Africa.

But nothing could have equipped us for what we encountered this spring.

 An RSPB staff member in full PPE approaching a dead bonxie on the grass.

It quickly became clear that seabirds, particularly bonxies and gannets, were suffering with the epicentre being in Shetland and Orkney. We started hearing alarming reports, such as 250 dead bonxies on Fair Isle, 700 on Foula, along with early estimates of 1 in 10 adult gannets dead at Hermaness in Shetland. Then came worrying news from St Kilda with reports of more than 100 dead bonxies. Then it reached the world’s largest gannet colony at Bass Rock where images from the seabird centre’s cameras clearly show the tragic impact of this outbreak. Early in the breeding season dozens of guillemots (along with razorbills, herring gulls and a kittiwake) were reported dead in the Mull of Galloway and numbers of dead seabirds particulalry guillemots are starting to increase with nearly 200 found washed up on Westport beach in Argyll last week. Dead birds have been washing up on beaches all down the east coast for weeks and are now being seen along the west coast including Islay and Mull.

You may have come across this yourselves when visiting the coast this spring. Sadly, more and more people are likely to see dead birds on beaches as we progress through the summer holidays.

Tens of thousands of seabirds, especially gannets and bonxies but also terns, guillemots and other species have already died, and we don't know the full scale of the tragedy.

Numbers from a handful of areas suggest it could be catastrophic with reports of 50 to 85% declines in the number of adults in some great skua colonies – a species where Scotland supports 56% of the world's population. Gannets, another species for which Scotland is internationally important, have declined in numbers by 15-25% at key colonies.

It isn't just Scotland that is experiencing this devastation. HPAI has been confirmed in Northern Ireland and thousands of birds have died in eastern and south-east England in the last few weeks. There are also reports of an entire tern colony, more than 3000 pairs, wiped out in the Netherlands.

 A dead tern on the beach.

It is heart-breaking and is taking a heavy emotional toll on colleagues facing these harrowing scenes day to day.

It is also deeply concerning. Seabirds are long-lived, slow to reach breeding age and raise relatively few chicks each year. When adults die in large numbers, populations cannot breed fast enough to make up the losses and they can go into severe declines.

Many of Scotland's seabirds were already struggling from food shortages, from being killed by fishing gear or poorly placed offshore development, from eggs and chicks being eaten by invasive non-native species. These human generated pressures that we’ve known about for years mean we've already seen significant declines. In Scotland, the index of 11 annually monitored breeding seabirds had already declined by 49% since 1986 before the impacts of HPAI began.

Now avian influenza, another threat that originated from human activity, this time in commercial poultry farms in East Asia, is threatening them.

Something needs to change!

The good news is there are things we or more accurately the Scottish Government (and other Governments) can do.

We're grateful that on Thursday NatureScot announced they’ll lead a task force to co-ordinate a national response to the current crisis. We hope this group will quickly create a response plan for HPAI in wild birds and that this will help achieve much-needed co-ordination on testing, monitoring, research, biosecurity, disturbance and carcass collection and disposal.

The task force will also look at what needs to happen to build resilience in seabird populations. We need action on closing industrial sandeel fisheries, reducing deaths in fishing gear, a national programme of island restoration and biosecurity to protect seabirds from invasive species and for marine renewables to minimise further harm to nature and only happen alongside measures to restore nature.

The pressures facing seabirds are caused by humans and are fixable by humans. But we must act now, and we must act fast!

Please remember not to touch dead or dying birds and keep dogs away from sick and dead birds. If you come across five or more dead birds, please report to the DEFRA helpline on 03459 33 55 77.

 Main image: a dead gannet on the beach.