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Avian influenza updates

When avian influenza hits the headlines, some people become nervous about the birds they previously enjoyed watching in their gardens. We bring you reassurance and the facts you need to know.

FAQs about avian flu

Should I be worried about bird flu in the UK?

Since 2006 there have been several outbreaks of avian influenza in the UK, the vast majority of which have been on domestic poultry farms. There have been very few cases of the virus being detected in wild birds in the UK. 

This is a disease of birds, and in the event of an outbreak the risk to human health is extremely low.

Very few strains of avian influenza have been recorded as infecting humans, and those which can transmit to humans do not do so easily.

The overwhelming majority of human cases of the highly virulent H5N1 strain reported worldwide have resulted from close contact with infected domestic poultry, and the disease is not easily transmitted from human to human. To date there have been no cases of humans being infected with highly pathogenic avian influenza in the UK.

The birds around our homes and gardens have long been a source of considerable pleasure to many people. There is no reason not to continue to enjoy them. 

Is it safe to feed the birds?

Wild birds are incredibly important in the lives of many people. The RSPB values this special relationship and encourages everyone to enjoy feeding garden birds.

It is extremely unlikely that avian influenza could be transmitted to people by feeding birds in the garden. Nevertheless, good hygiene at bird feeding stations is always sensible, both to protect the birds that feed in our gardens and ourselves. Follow the links to the right for further advice.

It is, of course, always sensible to wash your hands thoroughly after feeding ducks or other birds, or if you come into contact with bird droppings.

You are advised not to touch any sick or dead birds. If you find any dead waterfowl (swans, ducks, geese), any gulls or birds of prey or five or more of any other species in one place, you should report them to the Defra helpline (tel: 03459 335577) or in Northern Ireland to DAERA on 0300 200 7840.

Is it safe to visit the countryside?

The Government has made it very clear that in the event of an outbreak of avian influenza the countryside does not need to be closed down.

In the event of an outbreak at a domestic poultry farm or other premises, the Government launches a contingency plan to prevent further spread of infection, involving the designation of special protection and surveillance zones around the outbreak site. This helps to contain the outbreak and there is no need to avoid visiting the wider countryside. 

Culls of wild birds would be an inappropriate response to an outbreak.  This would be indiscriminate and could make the situation worse by dispersing potentially infected individuals. Culling could also have an impact on wild bird populations.

What about birds nesting around my house and garden?

We very much hope that the UK public will continue to value wild birds, and will not attempt to prevent birds nesting, either by removing nest sites before they begin to breed, or by disturbing the birds or their nests once nesting has begun.

The risk to human health from wild birds is so remote that there is no need to deter birds, and this sort of activity will not provide protection from bird flu. Furthermore, it is an offence under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 to destroy a nest which is in use, being built or repaired.

As always, if you see a baby bird (fledgling) in your garden, leave it to its own devices. Its parents are almost certainly nearby and will look after it.   

People should adopt the simple precaution of avoiding bird carcasses and exercising the good hygiene measures.

Where can I find the latest information on avian influenza?

You can find the latest updates on avian influenza on our our Bird Flu Updates blog.

What is the risk to human health?

Very few strains of avian influenza have been recorded as infecting humans and the risk to public health in the event of an outbreak is usually extremely low.

A small number of avian influenza strains have been recorded in humans, and subtypes H5N1 and H7N9 in particular have caused serious concern in recent years. However although these viruses can infect humans, they do not do so easily, and are not easily transmitted from human to human. There have been no cases of humans being infected with highly pathogenic avian influenza in the UK.

Direct contact with infected birds, their droppings, nasal secretions or saliva is generally required for the infection to spread to humans. The overwhelming majority of the 668 human cases of H5N1 reported worldwide between 2003-2014 have resulted from close contact with infected domestic poultry.

Although the risk of contracting the disease from a wild bird is very low, you are advised not to touch any sick or dead birds, their droppings, or any water nearby. It is extremely unlikely that avian influenza could be transmitted to people by feeding birds in the garden, but good hygiene at bird feeding stations is always sensible (see link on the right for advice).

Avian influenza is not transmitted through properly cooked food. Cooked poultry and eggs are safe to eat in areas where outbreaks have occurred.

How does it spread?

Birds can be infected with the avian influenza virus through contact with infected saliva, nasal secretions or faeces. Wild birds including waterfowl are often more resistant to avian influenza than domestic birds, and can carry and transmit the virus without showing evidence of disease.

This has often led to speculation that wild birds are the primary source of avian influenza spread. However, there are several ways by which avian influenza might be transmitted, and globally the most important of these has been the unrestricted movement of poultry and poultry products.

A study in 2007 into the expansion of highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 concluded that whilst wild birds can undoubtedly contribute to the local spread of the virus in the wild, human commercial activities, particularly those associated with poultry, are the major factors that have determined its global dispersal.

Timeline of avian flu outbreaks in the UK

  • November 2014 - Defra animal health laboratory confirm an outbreak at a duck farm in East Yorkshire as being caused by highly pathogenic H5N8 avian influenza.  The strain is very low risk to humans.
  • June 2008 - Highly pathogenic avian influenza H7N7 confirmed in a commercial flock of chickens in Oxfordshire.
  • February 2008 - Sporadic deaths due to highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza in mute swans in Dorset (detected in November and December 2007).
  • November 2007- H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza reported at turkey farms Norfolk and Suffolk.
  • May 2007 - A low pathogenic strain of avian influenza H7N2 has confirmed on a small farm located in north Wales.
  • January 2007 - H5N1 avian influenza confirmed on a commercial turkey farm in Suffolk. Only a single outbreak occurs.
  • April 2006 – First UK report of highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza in a single wild bird (whooper swan) found dead in the harbour at Cellardyke, Fife.
  • April 2006 – Low pathogenic H7N3 avian influenza confirmed at three poultry farms within 3km from each other in Norfolk.
  • October 2005 - Highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza confirmed in an imported parrot, held in quarantine, that died three days earlier.