Concern is growing among conservationists and nature lovers as the UK’s “largest ever” bird flu outbreak continues to grow.
The RSPB said High Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) is affecting a range of poultry operations across the UK.
Wild bird species involved are mostly geese, ducks and swans, but a number of birds of prey have also been confirmed to have died.
Around half a million birds have been culled so far, according to UK chief veterinary officer Christine Middlemiss, who said there are 40 infected premises in the UK – 38 in Great Britain including 33 in England.
An Avian Influenza Prevention Zone was declared across the UK on November 3 before being extended on November 29 with the added requirement all captive birds have to be kept indoors, amid concerns that wild birds migrating from mainland Europe during the winter are carrying the disease.
The risk to human health from avian influenza remains very low, according to public health advice, and there is a low food safety risk.
Speaking in the House of Commons, environment secretary George Eustice said: “Each year the UK faces a seasonal risk in incursion of avian influenza associated with migratory wild birds.
“While we have that each year, I have to say this year we are now seeing the largest-ever outbreak in the UK of avian influenza with 36 confirmed cases.”
Defra confirmed the most up to date figure is 40 farm outbreak (33 in England, three in Wales, two in Scotland and two in Northern Ireland) with 300 cases detected in wild birds.
In the Republic of Ireland, four sites in County Monaghan and County Cavan have been affected, with 57 cases counted in wild birds too.
The protection zone means that in addition to keeping birds and poultry housed, keepers must continue to take precautions such as regularly cleaning and disinfecting clothing, equipment and vehicles and limiting access to non-essential workers and visitors.
Defra has said the new housing measures will be kept under regular review.
The outbreak is likely to last throughout the winter, an official told elected representatives in Northern Ireland, where the outbreak has led to 22,100 ducks being culled. Julian Henderson, a lead veterinary officer for the Northern Ireland executive, also said that resources have been a “real issue right across the British Isles”. “We are prioritising staff into the work on bird flu, right across the department we are considering our resourcing needs to enable us to sustain this response throughout the winter and we’re putting plans in place to how we can maintain the response,” he told MLAs. “At the minute staff are working long hours, they have been working overtime in difficult conditions and we are actively considering how we can sustain that response.”
Paul Walton, head of habitats and species at RSPB Scotland, said: “The presence of the High Pathogenic Avian Influenza virus in all UK countries, in both poultry premises and wild birds, and the high numbers of dead and sick birds now seen, is generating growing concern among conservationists and nature lovers.”
Another RSPB spokesperson said: “Everyone should take care to maintain good hygiene when feeding garden birds, regularly cleaning feeders outside with mild disinfectant, removing old bird food, spacing out feeders as much as possible, and washing your hands.”
The bird flu outbreak is not expected to have any impact on the supplies of turkeys or other birds over Christmas.