Avian flu is ripping through seabird colonies right around the Scottish coast leaving thousands of dead and dying birds in its trail.
“We are in completely uncharted territory and the impact that this form of avian influenza is having on wild birds is completely unprecedented,” says Dr Paul Walton from the RSPB.
Avian flu occurs naturally in wild bird populations at low levels and normally is not a problem.
However, the H5N1 strain that is currently killing birds in the UK and other countries is particularly deadly. It originated in high density poultry farms in Southern China and spilled over to wild bird populations.
In response to the deepening crisis, DEFRA has launched a research consortium made up of some of the UK’s top scientists in a bid to understand more about the impact of this new form of avian flu on wild birds and poultry.
“The research will investigate how avian flu viruses are emerging, despite wild bird populations having prior exposure to genetically similar viruses,” says a DEFRA spokesperson.
“Scientists will also look at wild bird movements and… [take] samples from different wild bird species to build up a better picture of the risk that different species provide.”
Great skuas are so far among the worst hit species with over 1,000 birds dying across Shetland and the Orkneys. Just under 10,000 great skuas breed in the UK representing 60 per cent of the global population.
There are also increasing concerns about the impact on northern gannets with Scotland home to 20 per cent of its global population. Large numbers of dead gannets have been reported on their nests and at the base of sea cliffs where they breed.
“We feel powerless. We can only watch and monitor the passage of the disease as it spreads through the colony,” says Susan Davies, chief executive officer of the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick.
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Avian flu is now spreading into England with reports of 60 dead birds including common and sandwich terns at the RSPB’s Minsmere reserve and the disease is also tracking across northern Europe with thousands of sandwich terns dying across northern France and The Netherlands.
Dr Walton believes the outbreak of avian flu needs to act as an urgent wake-up call to start taking seabird conservation seriously.
“Since 1986 11 key seabird species have decreased by 49 per cent,” he says. “We need to build seabird resilience to human pressures by closing industrial sand-eel fishing around the UK coast and reduce sea-bird bycatch deaths in fishing gear.”
People are being advised not to touch sick or dead birds but report them to the DEFRA helpline on 03459 33 55 77.
Main image: a great skua (right) tries to steal a fish from a northern gannet under the cliffs in Noss, Shetland Islands. Both species are threatened by avian flu. © Michele D’Amico supersky77/Getty