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24 Jun 2022

The impact of avian flu

Written by Rheanna-Marie Hall
A huge cliff rises from the sea, with gannets swooping in the air.
How the current strain of avian flu is affecting the birds in our care, and guidance on what to do if you find an unwell bird while out and about.

What is avian flu

Avian flu is an infectious disease transmitted between birds.

The risk to human health is very low. However in rare cases it can also be transmitted to humans, and it is important that if you find a bird you suspect has been infected (whether dead or alive) or one that is behaving strangely, you do not touch it. For more advice and guidance, please see the section further down the page.

Poultry, other captive birds and wild birds can all become infected, and there are different strains of the virus. It can also be spread through bird faeces.

We are beginning to see the impact of the current strain of avian flu at our coastal and island properties which are home to bird populations including great skua, gannets, guillemots, and shags (all pictured below).

Impact at our places

Please note the situation is changing rapidly. This information is as up to date as possible and will be reviewed and updated accordingly.

At our affected places we are working hard to monitor the bird population and watching out for any signs of infection. Records of infected birds are being kept.

Last updated: 25/07/22


St Kilda – Susan Bain, Western Isles Manager

Scotland is a very important place for many seabirds including the great skua, with over 60% of the world’s population breeding on Scottish Islands, mostly in Shetland and Orkney but also on some west coast islands such as St Kilda. A recently completed survey by our Seabird Ranger, Craig Nisbet, found that over 2/3 of our breeding birds have died due to avian flu. This high mortality rate has also been seen in other places like Unst and Fair Isle.

We are waiting fearfully to see if it will affect other bird species, especially birds that like to nest very close together like gannets, guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes, which will all be particularly vulnerable. To date we have only had a handful of dead gannets but we will continue to monitor the situation, as the impact of the avian flu on one of the most important seabird breeding areas in Europe could be devastating.

St Abb’s Head – Ciaran Hatsell, Ranger

Avian influenza has crept towards St Abb’s Head, and during the last few days there can be no doubt that it has reached our shores. After hearing of horrendous news concerning great skua populations from friends in Shetland and the Western Isles, the spread to the gannets on Bass Rock (an island just off North Berwick, East Lothian) gave us the first real inkling of what was to come.

After initially seeing small numbers of birds, mainly gannets, washing up around the reserve and on beaches, we started to find small numbers of birds dead on the colonies themselves. Last week we received confirmation of the first positive case of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza H5N1, which was found in a guillemot found on the reserve. Following on from this, the biggest impact has now been seen in guillemots, with a large die-off of chicks discovered on 21 June. Many dead guillemots including 68 chicks were found floating in the water around the reserve, with reports from other locations locally too.

Around 135 birds have been found so far at the reserve with many more locally. The response from the Scottish Borders Council has been fantastic: they are doing daily patrols of public beaches and working with various organisations to help minimise the risk to people and birds by removing carcasses from public locations.

We are monitoring the impact here every day and will continue to do so throughout the seabird season. Although for so many seabird workers across Scotland and beyond it’s become a grim part of the job, it’s essential for us to carry on and do what we can to monitor the impacts of this outbreak.

Mingulay, Berneray & Pabbay

We have a suspected outbreak of avian flu (H5N1) affecting seabirds on these islands.

Mingulay have signs and ropes up to limit close access to their puffin colony.

Staffa

Please note there may be restrictions to access on certain places of the island due to a suspected case of avian flu.

Canna

There is evidence of bird flu reaching Canna, with a small number of dead birds found on the island. 70 dead adult guillemots ringed on Canna have also been found washed up on neighbouring Skye.

Iona

Iona has a seabird population. It is being monitored closely by our teams and no cases are yet confirmed.

Advice and who to call

The advice we are sharing is currently aligned with government guidance.

If you see a dead or dying bird:

  • Do not approach or touch the bird
  • Report it to the DEFRA helpline on 03459 33 55 77
  • If you can, please alert a member of National Trust for Scotland staff

Your local council website may also have advice and information on how to report a sighting so they too can keep a record of infections in the area.

NatureScot are also releasing regular updates and public advice:

Latest updates

NatureScot advises public landings to stop on 23 islands

What you can do to help

As well as the advice above about what to do if you find a bird you suspect is infected, you can also help during your visit by taking some precautions.

  • Please keep your distance from the birds.
  • Disinfectant foot mats may be available at some sites. If so, please use them both when you arrive and when you leave. If you are going to visit another area or island with a seabird population (or if you keep birds at home), disinfecting your feet when you leave is especially crucial.
  • The risk to human health is very low, but in order to keep safe please also wash and sanitise your hands before eating, drinking, or smoking.

Supporting the National Trust for Scotland helps us take care of important wildlife and their habitats, which becomes even more crucial in times like these. Our rangers and countryside teams are vital in protecting our outside spaces and the vast array of wildlife that call them home. At our coastal and island properties, seabird monitoring and habitat conservation are two of the ways we do this, and your support is crucial to our work.

For more information on the current strain of avian flu at our affected properties, you can visit our property pages and also follow updates on social media.

St Kilda Rangers – Twitter

St Abb’s Head – Facebook

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