The National Trust has called on the government to offer more support on dealing with a major outbreak of Avian flu (bird flu) on the Farne Islands on the Northumbrian coast.
Gwen Potter, from the National Trust, told ITV News the virus has now hit "endemic" levels, with around 5,000 confirmed deaths of wild sea birds including Guillemots, Kittiwakes, Razorbills, Shags, Arctic Terns and Puffins.
The rangers on who look after the islands fear the death toll could run into thousands more, with chicks and adult birds dying in the sea.
Ms Potter said: "It’s here to stay and it’s endemic now. That should trigger some action. We should be talking about how we protect these birds through minimising disturbance, for example. We need to talk about how we collect the carcasses of these birds, due to the potential of transmission. We need to give clear guidance for managers working in colonies on how to keep safe while they are doing this work.
She added: "There are some species that are estimated to have declined by 83 per cent in the North of Scotland. We believe our sandwich tern colony has been decimated by around 50 per cent and it could potentially be more. We'll only really know the true number when they return next year."
The government told ITV News it has taken prompt action to address the disease, including enhanced monitoring, supporting poultry keepers and advising the public.
A Defra Spokesperson said the government has been "working with world-leading bird flu experts, we’ve established a new consortium to provide cutting edge research into bird flu, and help us understand if more can be done in future".
Ranger, Tom Hendry, said the grim task of locating and removing the dead birds from the beautiful islands has hit his team hard.
He explained: "It’s quite upsetting, because you’re did work very closely with the birds, monitoring them and sharing the seabird spectacle with visitors, of course we’re closed at the moment, but then it is important work to do to help control the spread, so there is an element of just having to get on with it, no matter how hard it can be at times."
His team locate the dead birds on the rockery of the islands, record the species of bird, adding to the death toll each time, before bagging the carcasses up ready to be sent for professional incineration.
It is feared among some of the worst affected species there could be up to two generations lost to the disease.
Mr Hendry added: "Some of the birds that we’ve found dead on the Farnes also had rings on them. So they’ve been ringed previously and that’s given a bit of a glimpse into the past of some of these birds. We found one on Monday that was ringed as a chick in 2003. You know, it’s a 19-year-old bird. So we’ve had some birds here that have spent decades on the islands that have unfortunately come to their end due to this unfortunate crisis."