The most recent series of bird flu outbreaks is the largest ever in the UK and worldwide and has killed tens of thousands of birds in the UK alone.
First, Great Skuas began dying across islands in Scotland in summer 2021. Then in winter 2021/22 on the Solway Firth, bird flu killed a third of the Svalbard breeding population of Barnacle Geese – at least 13,200 birds. In winter 2022/23, up to 5,000 Greenland Barnacle Geese died on Islay, as well as hundreds of ducks, swans, gulls and other geese species. Birds of prey such as Peregrine Falcon, Hen Harrier, Buzzard, White-tailed Eagle and Golden Eagle have also been testing positive.
So far, 78 UK bird species have tested positive for avian flu, including most of our breeding seabirds.
In summer 2022, the UK’s seabirds were hit extremely hard by bird flu. Thousands of Gannets were lost at RSPB Troup Head and at RSPB Grassholm, with numbers at Grassholm now at lows not seen since the 1960s. We lost over 2,500 Great Skuas in Scotland, as well as over a quarter of our Roseate Terns on Coquet Island, the only breeding colony of this species in the UK. In spring/summer 2023, we again saw devastating impacts on seabirds, including Black-headed Gulls, Guillemots, Kittiwakes and Herring Gulls, as well as significant impacts on terns. Seabirds are long-lived, take several years to reach breeding age and rear only one or two chicks per year, so it is particularly difficult for them to recover from such an impact.
Cases have been low in the UK during winter 2023/2024, which is very welcome. However, there have been large outbreaks among Cranes in Hungary and Swans in Romania and, very worryingly, the virus spread to the Antarctic region for the first time this winter. As long as it remains present globally, UK birds are at risk, and we will be monitoring the situation closely as the breeding season begins and our seabirds return.
Seabirds are already under massive pressure from climate change, lack of prey fish, deaths through entanglement in fishing gear, predation by non-native invasive species on islands where they nest and developments along our coasts.