The number of barnacle geese that have died of avian flu has surpassed 13,000 birds since the winter of 2021.
The barnacle geese that winter in the Solway died in 2021/22 with a further 5,000 who winter on Islay died this year, according to local population counts.
Nature Scot say that the number of sick and dead birds reported through their network has totalled 2,800 birds across 50 species since December.
Measures are now being put in place to try to reduce the risk of avian flu for Scotland’s seabird colonies this summer. Species are starting to return to Scotland's coasts to breed with conservationists waiting to see how the virus has impacted seabird populations.
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.”
What action is being taken?
Nature Scot has introduced a range of actions including:
Expanding the existing surveillance network to understand better the impacts of avian influenza 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 a major programme of additional seabird monitoring, designed to detect the scale and nature of HPAI impacts on breeding seabirds. It 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.
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.”
Scotland’s Deputy Chief Veterinary Officer Jesus Gallego said: “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.”
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