As we exit the year 2016 and enter 2017, cold weather in the east has provoked a rise in the number of migrants from Europe; waterfowl in particular have started to arrive in greater numbers in search of less frost affected wetland areas.
We have been aware for a number of years of the potential for Avian Influenza in various strains to be carried by long distance migrants and of the potential consequences both for the wild bird populations and domestic (farmed) birds which are concentrated in large numbers in various facilities across the UK where the demand for meat and eggs is high, and especially so in the autumn as Christmas approaches with the spike in demand for Chicken, Turkeys, Geese and Ducks as festive fare.
Outbreaks of the H5N8 strain of Avian Influenza (AI) have been widely reported across the old world with news of slaughter programmes being put in place in for example Iran & Japan where hundreds of thousands of birds are affected. H5N8 is not a threat to human beings but the potential loss of much of the supply to the human consumed meat trade would have other consequences.
By mid-November, eight countries in Europe had reported detections of H5N8 in such species as Tufted Duck, Coot, Pochard, gulls, geese and swans. None of the outbreaks were in the UK but the risk level was increased to medium from low.
Inevitably, the threat was realized in a short timescale; by the first week of December 2016, infections of H5N8 HPAI in wild, captive or domestic birds had been reported in 14 countries across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
By mid-December as a result of an outbreak in Turkeys at a Lincolnshire poultry farm, the BTO issued an advisory note that an exclusion zone had been declared and that all trapping & ringing operations of wild birds in the zone were suspended. On 22nd December WWT Llanelli Wetland Centre was obliged to close as a precautionary measure, following the finding of a dead wild Wigeon on the Loughor estuary. WWT, together with other organizations is vigilant and takes a cautious approach to such outbreaks since there is much at stake, particularly in their collections of captive wildfowl.
From the BTO web-site comes the following information:
General government guidance on avian influenza can be found at:
- www.gov.uk/avian-influenza-bird-flu for England
- www.gov.scot/avianinfluenza for Scotland
- http://gov.wales/topics/environmentcountryside/ahw/disease/avianflu/?lang=en for Wales
- https://www.daera-ni.gov.uk/articles/avian-influenza-ai for Northern Ireland.
The latest information from Defra and the Animal and Plant Health Agency on the current outbreaks in poultry, captive and wild birds in Europe can be found at:
What to do
Birdwatchers /naturalists can be of great assistance in staying alert for unusual cases of mortality or sickness in wild birds. If you notice unusual mortality in Great Britain, i.e. five or more wild birds dead in the same location, you should report them by calling the Defra helpline on 03459 33 55 77 (Mon-Fri 8am to 6pm) and selecting option 1, or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.In Northern Ireland such wild bird mortality incidents should be reported to the DAERA Helpline: 0300 200 7840.
Reports are also encouraged when a single dead wild duck, wild goose, swan or gull is found. Not all birds may be picked up for testing, but collating this information may reveal patterns of mortality.
It should be stressed that HPAI is a disease of birds. It is of great concern for the poultry industry but does not appear to be a major issue for human health in the UK. Whilst deaths have occurred in other countries, the numbers of cases have been very low and have been confined to people in very close contact to infected poultry. The advice is that there is no danger from eating well-cooked poultry and there is certainly no danger from normal birdwatching activities. Sensible basic hygiene should be used if you do come into closer contact with birds.
It is extremely unlikely that bird flu could be transmitted to people by feeding birds in the garden. Birds carry a variety of diseases, such as salmonella. The single most important action we can take, to protect both the birds that feed in our gardens and ourselves, is to follow hygiene guidelines.
In all circumstances, after handling bird feeders, cleaning bird baths or feeding birds, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water. Bird feeders should be washed and cleaned regularly to prevent spread of diseases such as salmonella. This should be done outside in your garden with dilute disinfectant (normal household bleach diluted 1:20).
What do I do if I find a dead bird?
Many thousands of birds die every week of natural causes and so it is not unusual to occasionally find dead birds. If, however, you find five or more dead wild or garden birds together in the same place and you are suspicious of the cause of death, do not touch the birds and contact Defra using the details above. This is particularly important for species like waterfowl.
Where possible, avoid directly touching any dead birds. If you move a dead bird (e.g. if a cat brings one into your house or you need to check if it is ringed), invert a plastic bag over your hand and pick the bird up in the plastic. If the bird is ringed, report the ring details to the BTO (www.ring.ac), then draw the bag over your hand and tie it up and dispose of it in your usual household waste, then wash your hands with soap and water.
Ringers have been issued with more detailed guidance at
- https://www.bto.org/sites/default/files/u10/downloads/taking-part/Diseases-from-birds.pdf (PDF, 446.84 KB).
Ringing should be suspended within any 10km Surveillance Zones where these are put in place around infected premises.