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Avian Flu experts urge beach goers to report dead birds

Avian Flu experts urge beach goers to report dead birds

Thousands of threatened seabirds suspected to have died from Avian Influenza are once again washing up on UK beaches.

Members of the public are urged to report all dead birds to BirdTrack and to Defra (or DAERA in Northern Ireland).

This unprecedented outbreak of Avian Influenza began in 2021 and has had a devastating impact on birds in the UK and beyond.

Hopes have been dashed that this summer’s wave of Avian Influenza might be less severe than in 2022, say researchers from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). The disease is once again having a devastating impact, with threatened seabirds washing up on beaches across the UK. Experts are calling for the public to report all dead birds to BirdTrack and Defra in Great Britain and DAERA in Northern Ireland to help them understand more about the disease’s spread.

Birds are dying from suspected cases of the Avian Influenza the length and breadth of the UK. Recent weeks have seen hundreds of dead Guillemots washed up on beaches in Wales and thousands of terns and gulls – including Kittiwakes, which were already on the UK Birds on Conservation Concern Red List because of population declines before avian influenza hit, dead at colonies in eastern Scotland and England. Black-headed Gulls remain the worst affected birds in Northern Ireland. Just last week, NatureScot recorded 1,443 Guillemots, 1,570 Kittiwakes and 236 Herring Gulls suspected to have died from Avian Influenza, but the true scale of the losses will not be clear for some time.

Earlier in the season, major outbreaks of Avian Influenza were mostly restricted to inland colonies of Black-headed Gulls, though the disease quickly spread to the coast and into colonies of Common Terns. Many thousands of each species are now known to have been killed. Reports suggest that as many as 20,000 Black-headed Gulls (adults and young) may have died at one Lancashire site alone. More than 10% of the total UK breeding population may have been lost.

This unprecedented UK outbreak of Avian Influenza began in 2021. Estimates of the total number of birds killed vary but more than 70 species are known to have been affected. Many colonies are being hit this year for the first time; others, sadly, are experiencing a second summer of disease.

Alongside the annual surveillance of some seabird colonies through the BTO/JNCC Seabird Monitoring Programme, there is additional work underway this year to assess the situation of species, such as Great Skua and Gannet, that were worst hit last year but are not usually monitored annually.

All dead and sick birds of any species should be reported to BirdTrack and to Defra/DAERA. BirdTrack allows researchers to follow the geographical spread of Avian Influenza and rapidly assess its potential impact. Defra/DAERA will decide whether to collect the dead birds and test them for the disease. 

Members of the public are reminded not to touch dead or sick birds and to keep dogs on leads to prevent the further spread of disease.

BTO Head of Surveys, Dawn Balmer, said: “As our beaches get busier over the summer holidays, do look out for dead birds, report them and keep your dogs on leads and away from carcasses. It’s devastating to see the impact of Avian Influenza again this year. You can help us monitor the situation by continuing to report dead birds to Defra (GB) and DAERA (NI), and also to BirdTrack.”

RSPB Senior Policy Officer for Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, Claire Smith, said: “It’s heart-breaking to see Avian Influenza sweep through seabirds again this year. The disease is one of several threats impacting the UK’s internationally important seabird populations. These long-lived and slow-breeding birds cannot simply bounce back. We need to do all we can to remove other human-induced pressures, such as by reducing bycatch and closing sandeel fisheries. We must also carefully consider the location of coastal developments and step up measures to tackle climate change.”

Natural England Principal Advisor for Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, Nik Ward, said: “Avian Influenza has again had a big impact on many of our important seabird colonies in England affecting chicks and adults in different proportions. Future monitoring will be crucial for assessing the lasting effects of these mortality events.”