Fears growing seagull population could lead to bird flu outbreak in Gloucester

A record number of cases of avian influenza were confirmed across England, Scotland, and Wales in wild and captive birds last winter

A sharp rise in the UK's gull population has led a council leader in Gloucester to fear the city could face an outbreak in bird flu.

Avian flu is an infectious influenza which spreads among birds and some strains of bird flu can pass to humans.

A record number of cases were confirmed across England, Scotland, and Wales in wild and captive birds last winter, but the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) says the risk to humans is low.

There were an estimated 6,000 gulls in Gloucester last time they were counted in 2019.

Gloucester City Council leader Richard Cook believes the population of urban gulls could now grow inexorably over the next few years as the council has not been able to monitor the population.

He recently spoke of his frustration with changes to regulation in 2020 which aim to protect gull populations.

“It wouldn’t be all that difficult to contemplate the transmission of avian flu into the human population given the very closeness of gulls in the city, their close proximity to humans, the fact they mess all over the place and snatch food from us.

“We might have another pandemic in a few years time which has arisen in the resident gull population because we haven’t been bothered to deal with it.

"There’s no reason not to assume that, having mutated among the birds, it might get passed to humans.

“If it happens to be particularly virulent it may kill high numbers of human beings in a similar way that Covid did. It’s a risk we do not need to take.”

Linda Gamlin, an expert in urban gulls said since mid-June, dozens of dead and dying herring gulls, which tested positive for bird flu, have turned up on beaches in Cornwall, East Anglia and Sussex.

“A few have been found in towns", she said.

"The strain of bird flu they’re carrying is deadly for poultry. It can only jump to humans with very close contact – mostly it’s chicken farmers who get it.

“People who see dead gulls are being warned not to touch them, unless they’re in full ‘space suit’ protective gear."

What is the UK's advice around bird flu?

The UKHSA has said that avian influenza is primarily a disease of birds and the risk to the general public’s health is very low.

They advise people not to touch or pick up any dead or visibly sick birds. The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) carries out year-round avian influenza surveillance of dead wild birds submitted via public reports and warden patrols.

A spokesperson said: “And as part of our on-going surveillance for avian influenza, there have been multiple findings of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) H5N1 in wild birds from sites across Great Britain in addition to a single finding of HPAI H5N8 in a wild bird.

“APHA publish a report on findings of highly pathogenic avian influenza (bird flu) in wild birds in Great Britain.”

Natural England says they recognise that local authorities may need to control large gulls where there is a specific risk to public health. However, an individual or organisational licence is required to control gulls.

A Natural England spokesperson said: “To support this, those who are applying to control large gulls in urban areas must also submit integrated management plans to demonstrate a strategic and coordinated approach to non-lethal control.

“Whilst historic egg oiling across rooftops in cities may have limited gull numbers, we believe promoting non-lethal deterrents and management strategies is a more effective long-term solution.

"Last year, we launched a simple online screening service so any potential applicants can quickly check if their situation is likely to warrant a licence – most users will receive a reply in under 48 hours.”

Credit: Carmelo Garcia, Local Democracy Reporter