Bird flu: Britain's seabirds face 'catastrophe' as avian flu devastates colonies

The RSPB has described the spread of avian flu as a 'crisis that could become a catastrophe' with the majority of seabird species testing positive

A nature conservation charity is warning Britain's seabirds are "on the brink" as avian flu devastates seabird colonies for a third year.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) says thousands of seabirds have reportedly already died this summer, with 21 of the UK’s 25 breeding seabird species now having tested positive for the virus since 2021.

Across the charity's own nature reserves alone, 3,000 birds have died from the virus in 2023, adding to the 17,000 that died in 2022.

Although the exact death toll is not known, the RSPB estimates tens of thousands of birds have perished since the outbreak began in 2021.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) advise that bird flu is primarily a disease of birds and the risk to the general public’s health is very low.

What to do if you come across an infected bird

Beachgoers are urged not to touch any sick or dead birds, and advise people to keep their dogs away too.

People are asked to report any sick of dead birds via the following resources:

If you know the species, you can also report it to the British Trust for Ornithology's (BTO) online BirdTrack tool.

A National Trust team of rangers cleared deceased birds from Staple Island last summer Credit: PA

Seabirds 'are in crisis'

Seabirds tend to live in dense colonies and rear just one chick a year. This allows the disease to rip through populations and move between colonies while making it harder for the species to bounce back.

The virus is devastating colonies of species that were already recognised as needing urgent help, including red-listed kittiwakes and amber-listed guillemots and tern species.

Jeff Knott, director of policy and advocacy at the RSPB, says: “As a vital indicator of the health of our seas and marine habitats, seabirds are already feeling the impacts of the nature and climate emergency here in the UK.

"The additional pressure of avian flu across the UK right now is a cause for great concern, as the cumulative three-year effect of this virus, on top of decades of declines amongst our seabirds, could potentially be catastrophic for some of our much loved, and most at risk, species.”

Under pressure from other challenges at sea, including sandeel fishing, warming marine temperatures and entanglement with discarded fishing gear, seabirds face numerous threats to their survival, the charity warns.

The RSPB is now calling for the governments of the UK to bring new strategies to protect the UK's seabird population, and improve their resilience and long-term health.

Seabirds "are in crisis," Knott said, adding: "Without robust measures to address these challenges, and with avian flu ripping across the UK as we speak, our seabird colonies are being pushed to the brink."

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