Warning bird flu could become a global pandemic

One of the two guillemot washed up at Whitefarland. Photograph: Katy Penn.

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By Hugh Boag

The hundreds of birds which have washed up on the shores of Arran in recent weeks all died of bird flu, it was confirmed this week.

And people on the island are being urged to continue to be vigilant amid fears the crisis could develop into a global pandemic.

Charlotte Clough at Arran Vets has confirmed that the swabs she took from six dead guillemots on Sandbraes and Blackwaterfoot beaches on July 23 and 24  were positive for Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza ( HPAI) H5N1, also known as bird flu.

So far over 350 dead and dying sea birds have washed up on the Arran shoreline since the July 12. They are coming from Rathlin Island just off the coast of Northern Ireland. While mainly guillemots, they also include gannets, herring gull, razorbill, and shag,

Charlotte said: ‘Our local council workers are to be commended for doing a fantastic, but unpleasant job by removing dead bodies from the tourist beaches. This is also helping reduce spread to other birds and from there to poultry.’

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

Whilst the risk to people is low, the UK government’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and NatureScot are taking this very seriously indeed and warning signs have been put up around the island asking people not to touch the dead birds or the area around them contaminated with feathers and droppings which are also infectious.

Charlotte asked: ‘Please let me know if you see dying seals, swans, geese, poultry, raven, crows, gulls or birds of prey such as buzzards or even peregrine. These are the species that might be infected by the dying guillemot.

‘They won’t necessarily be seen on the tide line like the guillemot, they may be inland or in your poultry at home. Also inform Defra of any dead birds on 03459 33 55 77.

‘Please do not pick up or bring dying birds to the surgery and phone for advice.

‘Bird flu is far too friendly a term for this current lethal strain of the virus which is killing between 33 per cent in barnacle geese and 80 per cent great skuas of the populations it infects. This is the first time it has infected and started killing sea birds such as gannets, guillemots, razorbills, puffins, eider ducks and terns in the thousands.

According to Defra: ‘The ongoing situation with HPAI H5N1 in breeding birds over the summer months in GB and north-west Europe is unprecedented, and we are in uncharted territory with mass die-offs continuing in sea bird breeding colonies around the GB coastline.’

Wild birds are the victims here of the H5N1 virus that was first isolated in intensive poultry units in China in the ’80s.

‘Sometimes the news is very bad indeed but this doesn’t mean we should look away and not confront this issue. We should ask politicians and bodies such as NatureScot and Defra to urgently seek solutions both for the future of our wild bird populations and for the poultry industry,’ Charlotte added.

Bird expert David Steel told the BBC there were increasing fears it could become a global pandemic.

‘We’ve got to start to learn more about this and also make decisions about next season, because obviously there’s a big risk that our birds are going to take it south with them.

‘Will they take it into other colonies? Will they take it into albatross colonies in the south, penguin colonies, so it becomes a global pandemic then and comes back next spring?

‘That is the worry, it really is; it’s a big concern.’


The NatureScot warning notice.