Bird flu 'intensifying fast in Scotland'

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Gannet in Shetland killed by HPAI (pic: RSPB)
Gannet in Shetland killed by HPAI (pic: RSPB)

BIRD flu is “intensifying fast in Scotland,” the RSPB has warned, with reports of thousands of dead or dying birds.

The charity has called on the Scottish Government and NatureScot to “urgently develop a response plan.”

Shetland appears to be the most heavily affected area in the country, but there are reports of wild birds all over Scotland stricken with Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI).

Great skua colonies in Shetland, Fair Isle, Orkney, the Western Isles, Handa, the Flannan Isles and St Kilda, have been badly affected, as have gannets at key colonies, including Noss in Shetland, Troup Head in NE Scotland, Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth and elsewhere.

The RSPB said they have also had reports of high mortality in sandwich and Arctic terns and a spike in the numbers of dead guillemots at a colony on the Mull of Galloway.


Last year, the virus was responsible for the loss of more than one third of the Svalbard barnacle goose population that winters around the Solway estuary.

The RSPB has warned of longer term impacts from the virus.

As seabirds are long-lived, and take longer to reach breeding age, any recovery to HPAI's impact on populations will likely be slow.

Dr Paul Walton, Head of Species and Habitats for RSPB Scotland, called on the Scottish Government to take action to lessen the impacts of other threats facing the birds.

He said: “Scotland’s seabirds are already facing multiple severe pressures generated by people – climate change, prey fish shortages, invasive species brought to islands, mortality in fishing gear and poorly sited wind turbines.

“These populations have halved since the 1980s. Now, a highly mutable and deadly new form of avian influenza, which originated in poultry, is killing our wild seabirds in large numbers.

“We urge the Scottish Government and NatureScot to develop a response plan urgently – to coordinate surveillance and testing, disturbance minimisation, carcass disposal and biosecurity.”

He added: “In the longer term, we urge much higher importance be given to prioritising and funding a national programme of seabird conservation, so we build resilience in these precious populations to the pressures that we have put them under.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Winter 2021/22 has seen the largest outbreak of avian flu in the UK to date.  This has affected the wild bird population as well as commercial flocks.

“While maintaining high levels of biosecurity among domestic flocks helps protect against disease, addressing the disease among wild birds poses significant challenges.

“Avian Influenza is a disease that affects the wild bird population globally.

“The Scottish Government is taking the situation very seriously and is working hard with partner organisations to progress measures to respond to the reports of increased mortality among wild bird populations and help them become more resilient.”

A spokeswoman for NatureScot said: “We are extremely concerned about the current H5N1 strain of avian flu in Scotland and its potential impact on our internationally important bird populations.

"NatureScot is working at speed to produce advice for our reserve managers; and with Scottish Government and conservation organisations to develop an effective overall strategy.

"Central to this is gaining crucial understanding of the present situation and putting in place means to mitigate against its future recurrence.

“Avian influenza is a virus that mainly affects birds. Migratory birds, especially water birds, carry different strains of the virus along their migration routes.

"Some strains can also affect humans and other mammals.

"Thankfully, the risk to human health from avian flu is very low, but members of the public should avoid touching sick or dead wild birds and report any finds directly to Defra on 03459 33 55 77.

"We would also encourage visitors to coastal NatureScot reserves to keep their dogs on a lead to avoid them picking up dead birds.”