Bird flu wreaks havoc along British east coast


North Sea coastlines of England and Scotland have continued to be littered with birds suspected of dying from avian influenza in recent weeks, as two Scottish islands close their doors to visitors to help limit the spread of the virus.

From 1 July, the Isle of May, Fife, will be closed to public landings in an effort to help protect vulnerable seabird populations from avian influenza. The decision has been taken help give colonies the best possible chance of survival and recovery by reducing any additional stress to the birds.

In Shetland, the Isle of Noss is also set to close to public landings from 30 June to help protect the island's seabirds from the spread of avian influenza, which has been confirmed in Great Skua and Northern Gannet populations on the island.

Northern Gannet has been particularly hard hit by this latest outbreak of avian influenza (David Steele).

Eileen Stuart, NatureScot's Deputy Director of Nature and Climate Change, said "The decision to close these reserves has not been taken lightly, but we are increasingly concerned about the devastating impact avian flu is having in Scotland, particularly on our seabird colonies.

"Our island reserves in particular are a haven for internationally important bird populations. The situation has been rapidly evolving and deteriorating, and we feel at this time that restricting access to these sites, and reducing it at others, is a precautionary but proportionate approach that gives us the best chance of reducing the spread of the virus and its impact.

"We recognise that this will be disappointing for those planning a visit but we hope people understand that this is about protecting our precious seabird populations for the future. Visitors will still be able to enjoy the summer seabird spectacle at both island reserves by taking round-island trips without coming ashore, and at other reserves by viewing from a short distance without crossing through colony areas. We will be keeping the situation under regular review over the coming weeks."

On Unst, Shetland, NatureScot will ask visitors not to walk through seabird colonies at Hermaness but to instead enjoy the spectacle from a distance.

At Scolt Head Island, Norfolk, avian influenza is impacting the site's major, gull and tern colony, with at least 56 dead adult Sandwich Terns and 21 Black-headed Gulls disposed of in recent days. Approximately half of the colony's chicks are thought to be either dead or dying, with many more infected adults present.

Elsewhere, testing progresses as the virus continues to circulate. It is suspected that it has reached the seabird colony on Coquet Island, Northumberland, while it was recently confirmed in Sandwich Terns on the west coast of England in the colony at Hodbarrow RSPB, Cumbria.

Discussions are underway about the potential closure of Inner Farne and Staple Island, Northumberland, to visitors in order to reduce additional pressure on the island's seabirds. The virus is already well saturated throughout the Farnes, with high numbers of dead young and adult Guillemots scattered across the islands.

The Staple Island jetty is strewn with dead and dying Guillemot chicks (Bobby Pearson).

Avian influenza has already killed thousands of Sandwich Terns, Common Terns and European Herring Gulls in colonies in northern France and The Netherlands as this summer's outbreak of avian influenza continues to spread across northern Europe. Northern Scotland appears particularly affected as the outbreak continues to worsen, with hundreds of dead or dying seabirds found daily along the nation's coastline (see here and here). It is feared that avian flu affecting the St Kilda archipelago threatens to push Great Skua to local extinction – sample surveys by NatureScot show a 64% decline of the species in the archipelago and of 85% on Rousay, Orkney.

Any dead birds seen on beaches or at nature reserves should be reported to Defra on the helpline at 03459 335577.