Bird Flu

Following a meeting of more than 100 experts, a report into the continuing Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI or ‘bird flu’) outbreak has been published by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC).

HPAI has caused mass mortalities in the UK’s internationally important wild waterbirds and seabirds since the current outbreak began in October 2021. Across the UK, more than 60 species have been affected, and data collected by the governments’ conservation bodies, other organisations and volunteers indicates that many more than 20,000 wild birds have died. Especially badly affected species include wintering Barnacle Geese on the Solway Firth, breeding Great Skuas in northern Scotland, and Gannets in colonies around the UK coast. Great Britain and Ireland are home to more than 50% of the world population of both Great Skuas and Gannets, so these impacts are of global significance.

Recognising the global spread of HPAI, JNCC and BTO invited animal health experts, virologists, ecologists and conservation practitioners to a two-day workshop to assess the impact of the disease, discuss management options and identify information needs. The report from the workshop has just been published.

The report identifies three major knowledge gaps which urgently need addressing. First, we need a better understanding of how the virus spreads between individual birds. Second, we need to be able to accurately assess the scale of losses at our internationally important seabird colonies, and finally, we need to determine the best practical approaches to managing and mitigating future outbreaks.

The report highlights just how well existing monitoring schemes have worked to identify species that have been particularly badly affected. Reports of dead birds carrying uniquely-numbered metal leg rings, for example, have revealed extremely high mortality compared to previous years for seven species: Gannet, Great Skua, Guillemot, Arctic Tern, Sandwich Tern, Kittiwake and Mute Swan. The monitoring of wild bird populations remains critical if we are to fully understand the impact of HPAI and deliver conservation solutions. Seabird experts, including those involved in the national seabird monitoring scheme, the BTO/JNCC Seabird Monitoring Programme, have assessed which species and sites need monitoring in the coming breeding season.

The report also assessed the potential for different interventions to reduce the impact of bird flu on populations. This suggested that there is probably little that can be done to reduce the spread amongst wild birds, but highlighted the removal of carcasses of dead infected birds as the intervention most likely in certain circumstances to have an impact, particularly on species that may become infected through by scavenging dead infected birds.

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There was also a recent edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme, The Briefing Room on the wider risks of bird flu.