Bird Flu: More than 100 birds dying daily on globally-important Northumberland bird sanctuary

An outbreak of avian influenza is ripping through an internationally-important seabird colony off the Northumberland coast, killing more than 100 birds a day.

Coquet Island is home to the UK’s only breeding colony of the rare Roseate Tern, as well as 35,000 other birds.

Some of the birds on the island started dying in early June, and by early July more than 100 deaths a day were being recorded.

More than 1,200 birds have died so far on Coquet Island, an internationally-important birds sanctuary Credit: ITV News Tyne Tees

Paul Morrison, RSPB Site Manager for Coquet Island described the disease as “Covid for birds”.

According to the RSPB, 1,200 birds have now died on the island, 300 of them over the weekend of 9 and 10 July.

“This was due to be the best year ever for all four species of tern,” he said. "Now though, that has all come to a resounding halt due to the outbreak of avian flu.

"The numbers have plummeted in the last four weeks. It’s been so rapid.”

RSPB warden Ibrahim Alfarwi lives on Coquet Island. Twice a day, every day, he has to put on a biohazard suit and walk around the island, collecting the carcasses of dead birds.

He is also regularly faced with the distressing sight of one of the birds suffering with the disease.

RSPB Warden Ibrahim Alfarwi in a biohazard suit collecting dead birds on Coquet Island. Credit: ITV News Tyne Tees

According to Mr Alfarwi, it is an emotional task.

“You can't isolate yourself from this at all," he said. "I am a scientific person, an academic researcher. But in the end we are human. So if you see something happening to the birds, it is something for us as well.”

The RSPB and other conservation charities have called on the government to take action.

Mr Morrison said: “The spread of the disease needs attacking very, very quickly. So there has to be some response plan put in place because this is now nationwide. It's spreading right around the country.”

The impact of bird flu can be clearly seen in these two images of the same part of Coquet Island, taken two weeks apart. Credit: RSPB

One of the places where avian influenza is thought to have spread is the Farne Islands. At the start of July the islands, usually a popular visitor attraction, were closed to access from the general public.

Boat trips to the islands are crucial to the economy in Seahouses, where they sail from the harbour several times a day. Tours are running around the islands, but the ban on landings is a worry for those who operate the boats.

Tour operators, including Billy Shiel's, are still running trips around the Farne Islands even though landing is currently banned. Credit: ITV News Tyne Tees

William Shiel, who runs tour operator Billy Shiel’s Boat Trips, said they had lost “quite a few” customers “who were desperate to come and land on the islands".

However, he said many passengers had simply changed their booking to a trip around the islands.

“We can still see the birds from the boat and view the seabirds on the cliffs,” he added, warning that if the disease continues to spread it could have “a long term effect” on the economy.

Those who run other tourism businesses in Seahouses are also concerned. Kerry Loughlin’s shop, Puffin’s Burrow, sells all manner of seabird-themed gifts, and even shows a live-stream of a puffin’s nest on a TV mounted on the wall. 

Mrs Loughlin said: “There is a concern, obviously, with the bird flu. However, as we know, we got through Covid. I think we can manage to get through the bird flu. Hopefully.”

She added: “I'm not too frightened at the moment. However, it's early days. We're still busy, but we'll just have to see how it goes.”

If you come across dead or sick birds, official advice is not to touch them. Instead, they should be reported as soon as possible to the DEFRA helpline on 03459 33 55 77.

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