Arran fights back in bird flu crisis

Charlotte Clough with her respiratory mask and the equipment she needs to test the birds.

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By Hugh Boag

Seabirds continue to wash up on Arran’s shores as the bird flu crisis shows no sign of abating with each new tide bringing more birds.

More than 200 birds – mainly guillemots – which have been washed up in the last week on the west and south coast, are likely to be from a colony on Rathlin Island off the coast of Northern Ireland.

North Ayrshire Council now has two dedicated members of staff on the island – Peter McKinnon and David Heenan – who have been equipped with personal protective equipment (PPE) and respiratory masks to clear the birds from the beaches in a task described as ‘not pleasant’.

Equipment, including full PPE, has also been delivered to the island for Charlotte Clough from Arran Vets. She has also been given specialist swabs and sealed containers after being given permission to test the birds. Six samples have now been sent for analysis with results awaited.

However, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has confirmed positive test results of avian influenza in wild seabirds found on Islay, Kintyre and Ayrshire which are also likely to have come from Rathlin Island.

There are three colonies of guillemot to the south of Arran – on Rathlin, Sanda and Ailsa Craig – with tens of thousands of guillemots and there is concern these colonies will mingle and feed in the same area with the potential to spread the disease.

There was some criticism at the start of the situation that the government agencies responsible – DEFRA and the Animal and Plant Health Agency – as well as the council had been slow to react.

However, signs have now been put up across the island and resilience meetings are being held with NAC every day. A taskforce has also been set up to monitor the situation which is still widespread across Scotland.

While bird flu poses a very low risk to humans the public are being urged not to touch the birds and keep children and dogs away from them.

Anyone finding a dead or dying bird should now report the sightings to the NAC Contact Centre on 01294 310000.

Blackwaterfoot beach, one of the most popular on the island with tourists, has been one

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of the worst affected by birds washing ashore. Last weekend alone the council staff lifted 50 birds on Saturday and 60 on Sunday.

A number of birds have also been found at Kildonan and Silver Sands and a few have also washed up at Lochranza, Pirnmill, Corrie and Whiting Bay.

The vast majority of the birds have been guillemots, and their fledglings, but there have also been a few gannets,

The situation was discussed at the meeting of Arran Community Council in Brodick on Tuesday where NAC operations support officer Rosslyn Mills gave members an update on the situation.

She said Arran had been the hardest hit area of North Ayrshire as only 15 birds had been found on the mainland, however, she said South Ayrshire beaches had also been badly affected by the number of birds.

She said warning notices had now been put up around the island and said Peter and David were doing a great job of collecting and bagging the birds which she said was ‘not pleasant’. The birds are then being removed from the island in a sealed container for immediate incineration.

‘We are continuing to be keep tabs on the numbers but hope this may decline with the birds from the colony rehoming for winter,’ Rosslyn said.

Bird collector Peter, himself a community councillor, added: ‘It is pretty clear at the moment.’

A North Ayrshire Council spokesman said: ‘While the fast-developing nature of the avian flu outbreak has been challenging to deal with, we are proud of the efforts our Streetscene staff have made to remove dead birds as quickly and safely as possible.

‘As part of this process, they need to wear personal protective equipment, so please do not be alarmed if you see them while they are uplifting the birds.

‘We have been in constant contact with our partner agencies to deal quickly effectively and efficiently with the unfolding issue which is affecting large portions of our coastline.

‘We can confirm that any dead birds found on Arran will be removed from the island and taken to the mainland to be disposed of in the appropriate manner.’