Bird flu report spotlights impact of the disease on UK wild birds
02 Mar 2023 | No. 2023-05
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).
The report lays bare the impact of the disease on wild birds and identifies knowledge gaps that need to be addressed for the
effective conservation of vulnerable species.
It will inform the ongoing response to a disease that continues to have a devastating impact on vulnerable populations of wild birds.
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’ country 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 and can be accessed here.
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 also 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, butbirds 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.
Professor James Pearce-Higgins, BTO Director of Science, said: “Over the last year, bird flu has had an unprecedented impact on wild bird populations in the UK. It is vital to prioritise the monitoring of our wild bird populations, so we can identify and conserve the species that are most at risk. In the longer-term, bird conservationists, virologists and the poultry industry need to work closely together to reduce the risk of transmission between domestic and wild birds.”
Professor Phil Atkinson, BTO Head of International Research, who organised the workshop, said: “Getting input from over a hundred people from the UK and Europe, as well as from Canada and South Africa, really demonstrates what a global problem bird flu is. Wild birds are an unfortunate victim of this global pandemic.”
Dr Helen Baker, Marine Species Team Leader at JNCC, who co-led the workshop, said: “It is important that we work together within the UK, and internationally, to understand the virus, share knowledge and work out how best to adapt conservation solutions to protect and recover vulnerable species. Whilst there may be few interventions that can prevent the spread of bird flu in the short-term, we need to consider longer-term action and where feasible trial new approaches and learn from the results.”
Tom Stewart (BTO Media Manager)
Mobile: 07585 440910
Email: press [at] bto.org (subject: News%20release%20enquiry)
Mike Toms (BTO Head of Communications)
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Email: press [at] bto.org (subject: News%20release%20enquiry)
Images are available for use alongside this News Release. These can be downloaded from this link for which you will need to enter the password HPAIReport2023.
Alternatively, please contact press [at] bto.org quoting reference 2023-05.
Notes for editors
BTO is the UK's leading bird research charity. A growing membership and up to 60,000 volunteer birdwatchers contribute to BTO's surveys, collecting information that underpins conservation action in the UK. BTO maintains a staff of 100 at its offices in Thetford, Stirling, Bangor (Wales) and Belfast (Northern Ireland), who analyse and publicise the results of surveys and projects. BTO's work is funded by BTO supporters, government, trusts, industry and conservation organisations. www.bto.org
The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) is the statutory adviser to the UK Government and devolved administrations on UK and international nature conservation. JNCC is an executive non-departmental public body, sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs’ Defra generously co-funded the workshop alongside JNCC and BTO.
JNCC co-funds national bird monitoring schemes in the UK, including the BTO/RSPB/JNCC Wetland Bird Survey, BTO/JNCC Seabird Monitoring Programme and the BTO/JNCC Ringing Scheme. JNCC is also lead coordinator of the latest national seabird census, Seabirds Count (2015-2021). JNCC chairs the Defra-Welsh Government Avian Influenza Wild Bird Recovery Group and is a member of the Scottish Avian Influenza Task Force and Defra’s APHA Wild Bird Group. www.jncc.gov.uk communications [at] jncc.gov.uk
The general public can continue to help build an understanding of bird flu by reporting dead birds via the Defra portal Report dead wild birds - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) or by phone 03459 33 55 77, if they find:
- 1 or more dead birds of prey, gulls, swans, geese or ducks in the same place
- 5 or more dead wild birds of any other species in the same place
Not all reports will be followed up with testing for HPAI if there have been recent positive findings in wild birds in the same area, but the data will be shared with country conservation bodies, BTO and RSPB to help track mortality and potential HPAI impacts in wild bird populations.
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