With many species already starting to return to our coasts to breed, conservationists are waiting to see how the virus has impacted seabird populations this year.
Close monitoring over the autumn and winter months through NatureScot’s early-warning surveillance network has shown a mixed picture in other species.
Since late December, the number of sick and dead birds reported through the network has totalled 2800 birds across 50 species. While the national agency cannot say with certainly that all of these birds died of avian influenza, this is inevitably only a proportion of the overall mortality as many dead birds will not be found or reported.
Among the species that have suffered notable mortalities are pink-footed goose, herring gull and mute swan.
Scotland’s Avian Influenza Task Force, led by NatureScot, has been working at speed to further understand how the virus is transmitted and what practical actions can be put in place to help seabirds and other species in the event that they are hit by the outbreak again.
A range of actions have already been taken, including:-
Expanding the existing surveillance network to understand better the impacts of avian flu on seabird colonies and shore birds, including identifying key individuals who are ready to provide real-time intelligence if outbreaks start as the seabirds return.
RSPB leading on a major programme of additional seabird monitoring, designed to detect the scale and nature of HPAI impacts on breeding seabirds. This is possible in part thanks to funds raised from RSPB members and supporters, and will be undertaken in partnership with Marine Scotland, NatureScot,and the other Seabird Monitoring Programme partners, JNCC and BTO.
Setting up a further network of rapid responders - those with suitable PPE that will allow them to collect samples to feed into the GB-wide Dead Wild Bird Surveillance Scheme.
Preparing guidelines for access to high-risk seabird islands, developing targeted biosecurity measures and ways to minimise disturbance to birds - such as disinfecting footwear and restricting access to certain areas when necessary - that can be practically implemented and still allow access.
Working with the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) to assess research and ringing programmes, with the aim that targeted biosecurity measures will allow the work to go ahead if there is an outbreak.
Working with the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) to complete serological (antibody) sampling of the Svalbard barnacle geese on the Solway to help better understand the extent of resistance developed, with sampling of Greenland barnacles on Islay, which have also been hard hit this year, due to take place.
Eileen Stuart, NatureScot’s deputy director of nature & climate change, said: “Like many, we are waiting anxiously for our breeding seabirds to return so that we can begin to assess how the populations are faring after last year’s devastating outbreak.
“Over the winter we have seen a mixed picture, with some geese faring well and other populations suffering. The work we are doing on sampling will help us better understand why this might be the case and whether immunity/resistance is building up in the different populations.
“Alongside this, a huge amount of work has been going on in the background with a wide range of partners to prepare for the return of our seabirds across Scotland. While we cannot predict what the impact of the virus will be this summer, these preparations will ensure that we can take swift coordinated action if necessary to give our seabirds the best possible chance.
“Over the coming month, we will be communicating directly with stakeholders to give further detail, including providing a range of guidance to enable landowners and managers to prepare for the season.”
Scotland’s Deputy Chief Veterinary Officer Jesus Gallego, added: “We know that Scotland’s seabird populations were affected by avian flu last year. What is not yet clear is the full extent of the impact that the virus has had.
“We will continue to work closely with NatureScot and our other partners to ensure that effective monitoring of species remains in place during the forthcoming breeding season.
“This surveillance is critical as it allows us to track both where the virus is in the country and what birds have been affected. This information is also vital in informing our efforts to mitigate avian flu in poultry populations.”
Dr Nick Phin, Director of Public Health Science at Public Health Scotland, said: “Members of the public should not touch dead or sick birds unless they are wearing suitable protective clothing and know how to use it.
“The risk of getting avian flu in the UK from dead birds is low but not absent and people should therefore be cautious if they come across dead birds.”
Sarah Harris, seabird monitoring programme co-ordinator, said: “Britain and Ireland are home to the majority of Europe’s breeding seabirds, so our seabird breeding colonies - both coastal and inland - are of international importance. It is vital, therefore, that we have up to date information on their status and health, and understand the impacts of the avian influenza outbreak on their populations.”
Claire Smith, Senior Policy Officer for RSPB, said: “RSPB Scotland staff witnessed the devastating effects of bird flu on seabirds across our nature reserves last summer. Over the winter we have seen impacts on geese, gulls and swans.
“This year we are leading a programme of seabird counts to understand the impacts and generate updated population figures for those species badly impacted. This will be undertaken in partnership with Marine Scotland, NatureScot, JNCC and other Seabird Monitoring Programme partners and is in part thanks to funds raised from RSPB members and supporters.
“Our staff also contribute to mortality monitoring across Scotland and we are carrying out some specific HPAI research including studying immunology in gannets. We continue to work with partners in the Scottish Avian Influenza Taskforce to improve the fortunes of wild birds and thank our members for their ongoing concern and support.”