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‘Completely unprecedented’: Experts fear bird flu outbreak is pushing some species to the brink of extinction

The RSPB says there is “genuine concern” over the bird flu outbreak, as conservationists call on the government to do more to tackle the spread of disease.

In 1993, when Helen Moncrieff was a young schoolgirl in Shetland, an oil tanker ran aground and spilled 85,000 tonnes of crude oil onto Quendale Bay.

Moncrieff, now the Shetland Islands manager for the RSPB, spent days picking up the carcasses of birds, and remembers the feeling of “total helplessness” that overwhelmed her as she did it.

In recent weeks that feeling has crept back again, only this time, “it’s much worse”.

Over the last few months, across Scotland’s islands and coastlines, seabirds have been washing up dead on beaches in their hundreds for a very different reason. 

A vicious strain of avian flu – or “bird flu” – has been ripping through bird colonies and devastating their numbers. Things are now so bad that according to a recent estimate from Scotland’s nature agency, Nature Scot, some areas have seen colonies decline by up to 85 per cent.

The disease has spread southwards to parts of Norfolk, while other coastal resorts – such as Northumberland’s Farne Islands – have closed to visitors in an attempt to keep the disease at bay.

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Dead birds are littering beaches across the north of the country. Image: Gillian Smith/Big Issue
‘Dead birds as far as the eye can see’. Image: Gillian Smith/Big Issue

Kirsty Nutt, communications manager at the RSPB, said the scale of illness, death and spread is “completely unprecedented”. Yet the official response has been confoundingly slow-moving.

Nutt, along with other conservationists, is puzzled as to why the UK and Scottish government response to the crisis has been so muted, but she suspects it could have something to do with the way the disease is monitored by the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra).

“The response is really designed for poultry farming as they’re only testing which species have the disease [rather than] how many have died,” she explained.

“So if you had dozens of dead gannets on a beach, they [Defra] would probably only take one of those for testing.”

Defra has called the outbreak “devastating” but said there is “limited effective actions” that can be taken to protect wild birds, unlike captive birds.

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Currently, Defra’s figures on bird flu show where outbreaks have occurred, and note that at least 50 animal species have been infected. What they can’t give is exact figures on the number of birds with the disease. 

This means it’s very difficult to understand the true scale of infection, Nutt says, though reports from across RSPB’s network and contacts paint a grim picture. 

“A colleague of mine did a short walk north of Aberdeen this week and counted between 70 to 75 dead birds on a six mile stretch,” Nutt said. 

“At this point it would be more useful to just start measuring the mass mortality.”

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If the disease continues to spread, some fear the damage could be irreversible. 

The UK is home to around eight million seabirds of 25 different species, housing 68 per cent of the world’s northern gannets and 60 per cent of great skuas. Many species are already endangered.

And with seabirds ordinarily producing just one chick per year, conservationists fear that gannets and skuas may never recover.

“We believe we may possibly be facing extinction risk in some species, particularly great skuas,” Joan Edwards, policy director at the Wildlife Trusts, said. 

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With the disease spreading fast, Edwards said conservation groups “have no idea where this ends” and the disaster “has not yet been given the attention it deserves”.

“We are particularly concerned that Defra is not taking this issue seriously even though they set a target for species abundance in the Environment Act. Defra seems to be only concerned about the impacts for the poultry sector,” she added.

The Wildlife Trusts has called on the Defra to take immediate action through measures to protect bird populations and properly monitor the spread of disease. 

This includes developing a national plan for coping with bird flu, commence testing of asymptomatic birds and educating the public on responding when they see a suspected infection.

With the disease originating from poultry farms in east Asia, Nutt says avian flu is just the latest in a long line of human pressures putting strain on the lives of the UK’s seabirds. 

“The risk is that [bird flu] has a catastrophic impact on our seabird population which is already struggling from so many other threats,” she said.

“Birds are already being killed by fishing equipment, killed by wind farms in the wrong places, consuming plastic and starving due to food shortages driven by climate change.”

As shooting season comes up fast, Nutt fears that more devastation could be yet to come.

“We’re about to go into the season where birds tend to get released for shooting – we know they can carry the virus without symptoms. We’re worried [about further spread] and think this should be looked at.” 

The RSPB is also calling for more urgent action to save British seabirds from further damage. 

“People who are ecologists and experts in this field are not sensationalist when they talk about potential risks of extinction,” she says.

“Usually we don’t want to overstate things without the complete data but there’s genuine concern among my colleagues that this could be really, really bad.”

A Defra spokesperson said: “The current avian influenza outbreak is devastating for wild bird populations, but there are limited effective actions that can be taken to protect wild birds, as opposed to captive bird flocks.”

If you spot a bird you suspect may have bird flu, do not touch it or let your pets approach it. 

If you find any dead waterfowl (swans, ducks, geese), any gulls, seabirds, birds of prey or five or more of any other species in one place please report them to Defra on 03459 335577 or in Northern Ireland to DAERA on 0300 200 7840.

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