Paul Walton tells us about this highly pathogenic strain of Avian Flu, and why we’re calling for a moratorium on shooting.

Arctic breeding geese that migrate south to winter in Scotland are surely one of our most majestic natural treasures. Scotland is particularly important for barnacle geese, hosting two key global populations: the Svalbard barnacle geese, which winter on the Solway, and the Greenland barnacle geese, which winter in the Hebrides – notably Islay – and the west of Ireland.

This year, the Svalbard population has been devastated by Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI). A coordinated count of these birds on 19 January revealed a total population of 27,000 individuals, fully 38% down in the same population counted last winter (2020/21). This is a huge and sudden decline for any species and is unprecedented in the UK as an impact of bird flu on a wild bird.

Whilst Avian Influenza (AI) circulates in wild birds quite normally, and probably has for millennia, HPAI is a distinct issue. It originates in poultry in East Asia and is spread through two mechanisms: the movement of poultry, poultry products and associated vehicles and equipment; and through the movements and migrations of wild birds populations where individuals have become infected through contact with poultry, and then pass to other wild birds.

Given the major uncertainties about this new and emerging threat to wildlife, RSPB Scotland is urging the Scottish Government to do all it can to alleviate additional pressures on these birds. Advice from the Scientific Task Force set up under two key United Nations organisations, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (UN FAO), and the Convention on Migratory Species (UN CMS), is clear: minimise all disturbance that may encourage wild birds to fly elsewhere.

Barnacle geese are a protected species and cannot be legally hunted. However, other waterbirds can, and the Solway coast is a favourite area for wildfowling. The open season for wildfowling is well underway, and shooting activity regularly makes flocks of birds, including barnacle geese, take flight and move. Some local wildfowlers have shown restraint and have stopped shooting this year, but this is not universal and we have reports of wildfowling continuing despite the HPAI situation.

We are calling for the Scottish Government to introduce a temporary, localised moratorium on wildfowling on the Solway to minimise barnacle goose movements and hopefully reduce stress. The shooting season ends later in February, so the impact of hunters will be short-lived. And there is precedent, in that such restrictions are brought in as a matter of course during periods of extreme cold weather.

HPAI has very recently also been found in Greenland barnacle geese in Donegal, just about 80km from the key Scottish wintering ground of Islay. On Islay, the Scottish Government agency NatureScot is engaged in an annual cull of barnacle geese, shooting flocks with semi-automatic guns. The cull aims to help farm businesses that host grazing geese and suffer agricultural losses as a result. Evidence indicates, however, that one effect of this cull is to disperse birds away from Islay.


RSPB Scotland calls for the immediate cessation of the Islay cull to minimise the chances that Islay birds move to Ireland and mix with HPAI infected birds there.

We believe that these two actions would be proportionate and simple measures that the Scottish Government can take in response to an unprecedented and serious threat to internationally important wildlife populations, and we ask that they are implemented urgently.


  • It is currently open season for hunting wildfowl, and there has been a lot of shooting action recently. This has caused large flocks of birds, mainly barnacle geese, to <a href="">">dordle</a> take flight and wander around the area. Although there is evidence to suggest that wildfowling is still taking place in spite of the HPAI crisis, there have been some local wildfowlers who have exercised self-control and refrained from shooting this year. This is despite the fact that there have been indications that wildfowling is still taking place. Nevertheless, not everyone engages in this practice.